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Mentors helping youngsters find way along the right path

Glasgow's Hamish Allan centre is notorious as a clearing house offering temporary emergency accommodation and support for people who are newly homeless.

SUCCESS STORY: Liam Murray has benefited from MCR mentoring and is now preparing for a work placement in the Gulf. Picture: Colin Mearns
SUCCESS STORY: Liam Murray has benefited from MCR mentoring and is now preparing for a work placement in the Gulf. Picture: Colin Mearns

It is not a place you would expect to find a bright teenage boy doing his graphic communications homework.

But that was just one of the unpromising situations Liam Murray had to cope with during a schooling affected by constant family disruption, including a fire that left him and his siblings homeless, then saw him taken into care.

"My mum was raising me and two brothers and two sisters and there was a pile of things going on in my family life. At school I was resigned to sitting at the back, not saying very much and not doing much," says Liam, who is now 20.

He spent time in foster care because his mother had health problems and was struggling to cope. By the time he left school, he was back at home, but she had suffered two heart attacks and a stroke. "My mum is amazing, but she needed help," he says.

Liam also needed help - and he was fortunate to get it. When he moved from primary to secondary school he was on a reduced timetable and says he felt "not good enough" to learn with his fellow pupils. He did not expect to do very well, and had not even thought of university.

But his school, St Andrew's Secondary in Carntyne, had recently embarked on a mentoring scheme and paired him with Donna Cunningham, a senior manager attached to the school. At the time she was with Glasgow's education department and was responsible for raising pupils' attainment. She remains an official, now based at the organisation's headquarters.

In the eight years since she and Liam have been working together her role has been simple, she says. "Advice, encouragement, enthusiasm and a boot up the backside if he needed it."

The scheme grew and Donna is now one of dozens of mentors working across five secondary schools under the MCR Foundation's Pathways scheme.

The scheme was set up by Glasgow-born businessman Iain MacRitchie after he and his Foundation had experimented with a series of "top down" philanthropy ideas with varying levels of success.

However, over the last few years, MCR Pathways, which aims to open up routes to success for children at risk of under-achievement, has demonstrated the value of its approach. The programme aims to break down the barriers that lie behind some shocking statistics, says Mr MacRitchie.

The national average for school leavers entering higher education is 37% of pupils. In Glasgow, although it has recently risen, the proportion is still only just above 31%. In deprived areas of the city it is about 22%, while the proportion of children from a care background going on to university is 1-2%.

That last statistic is the main one motivating the man behind MCR. "A lot of these children have chaotic personal circumstances, they need support systems," he says. All have potential but those with the most potential can miss out, he adds. "There are pathways to higher education but they are blocked. Or they just can't see them. You can't have performance with instability. So we are trying to recruit people to give inter-generational support."

The Herald is supporting a new appeal by the MCR Foundation to ask more people to become mentors, providing the support that can open the eyes and raise the aspirations of some of Glasgow's most disadvantaged young people, and help them aim for higher education and life-changing careers.

While some existing mentors have been to university this is not necessary, says Mr MacRitchie. Neither is experience of teaching, although some are retired teachers.

Donna is an example. "I don't have a teaching background. I left school in fourth year," she says. "What matters is life experience and passion."

In fact, the key to the success of the scheme, she believes, is that a mentor is not a teacher or someone from a young person's school. "It is about an adult being there for you to give you 100% of their focus and attention. I found myself thinking 'where can I take this young person. What journey can I take them on that would be better than the journey they might go on without me?'"

For Liam, that journey took him to Glasgow Caledonian University, where he is in the second year of a degree course in building surveying, and aiming for a first. It will take him further, too: He has also just secured an extended paid work placement in the Gulf, for which he has started Arabic lessons. It is a chance he would not have expected at 11.

"I felt everybody else had a better chance, they did not have all the problems I had, " he says.

The aim is not just to work with young people who have been looked after by social services, says Mr MacRitchie, but anyone in the bottom 20% of the deprivation statistics - the very groups universities are keen to reach more of.

"This programme is effective, it has the support of all the other agencies involved - they know it will work - and it is scaleable," he adds.

At present, 254 young people are being supported through the MCR Pathways towards vocational, further or higher education. But plans to extend the scheme more widely are being held up by one thing only - the need for new mentors.

The Glasgow Future campaign is looking to recruit 200 mentors over the next six months, who are willing to give as little as an hour a week to supporting and guiding a young person.

It will offer them full support before and during their mentoring and one of the partners, Strathclyde University, trains all mentors.

"There will be communities of mentors and a support website. We will be there, every step of the way," says Mr MacRitchie.

He believes the scheme will make a difference to Glasgow as a whole, not just to young men such as Liam, and ultimately could be extended further across Scotland.

"The cost to society of failing looked-after young people is very high," he says. "Having an adult who has no vested interest, but who is consistent and who does take an interest in you is unique and can have a profound effect.

"All young people will go through peaks and troughs. But the mentors connect it all up. It all starts and finishes with that one relationship."

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