When I left school in 2010, at age 17, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Aside from all the inherent anxieties that come with being a teenager, my school years had been mainly uneventful, with decent results, good friends and mostly supportive teachers – but I was restless, impatient, and ready for something new and different. I practically ran out of my last exam onto a London-bound train for a work experience placement, and never looked back. 

If you’d have told me then that less than a decade later I’d voluntarily spend hours each month back in a Glasgow high school, I would probably have said time travel was more likely. But one day in 2019, freshly self-employed and looking to use my new-found flexibility to get more involved in my community, I found myself once again scraping back a chair on the speckled linoleum floor of a school canteen and taking a seat. 

That day marked my first as a volunteer with MCR Pathways, a school-based mentoring scheme that has supported thousands of disadvantaged young people across Scotland – and parts of England – since its inception in 2007. In Glasgow alone, MCR operates in every secondary school, engaging with around 2000 young people across the city at any one time with the aim of closing the gap in life chances between care-experienced and disadvantaged young people and their counterparts. 

The concept is simple: a young person is paired (through a matching system that takes into account both parties’ interests, career aspirations and backgrounds) with an adult volunteer who meets them for an hour every week in school. The programme has been widely praised by experts and politicians alike, and a 2020 evaluation found it kept mentored pupils in school for longer, increased their chances of gaining qualifications, and saw more of them go on to further education or employment. But earlier this week, Glasgow City Council announced its intention to stop funding the programme from August this year. 

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Like others across the city, I was dismayed and angered to read this news. I’ve spent my whole career as a journalist working against the backdrop of austerity and increasing inequality, too often finding myself seeking out ‘case studies’ to illuminate the real life impact of budget decisions and cuts. 

But I don’t need an abstract case study to understand the impact of this decision: the lives of those like the clever, funny, brilliant young women I have mentored through MCR will change as a result of what to others might merely be a line on a spreadsheet. Their chances in life will be diminished, simply because of the circumstances they happened to be born into. 

Many have made the political arguments: that it is our most disadvantaged who continue to pay the price for cuts; that the scheme offers value for money and a wider societal impact, encouraging young people into employment and educational opportunities and enriching our city as a result. I agree with them all. But having been a mentor for five years, to three different pupils at three different schools, it’s the human arguments I also want to make. 

Because while there are mountains of statistics pointing to MCR’s outsized impact and success, statistics can’t capture the moment that comes after weeks or months of meetings when a young person decides to trust you and seems to blossom in front of your eyes. They can’t account for a mentee raising their hand in class for the first time with a new-found confidence instilled by their mentor. They don’t measure what it means for a young person who might never have had a stable adult figure in their life to know that you’ll be there when you say you will, at the same time every week. 

Things that might seem insignificant to us as adults wrapped up in our own work, families and responsibilities can be huge for young people who’ve never had them; in initial training from MCR, I was struck by the story of a pupil who obsessed over news and world events, but whose family didn’t read a paper. All he wanted from a mentor was someone to bring in and discuss their dog-eared back issues. 

Read more on the threat to MCR Pathways:

MCR Pathways mentoring scheme to be hit by Glasgow City Council cuts

Zara Gladman speaks out against Glasgow mentoring cuts

Glasgow politicians chop further at education programmes

Glasgow to lose youth work programme and 11 jobs due to cuts

Over the past five years I have sat across cafeteria tables, giggling at playground gossip; in meeting rooms, debating politics and feminism; in front of a laptop screen staring down a webcam in the depths of lockdown, my mentee too shy to switch her camera on but a small voice saying “I’m here” into the darkness. 

At times I’ve recognised in them the same restlessness and impatience that I felt as a teenager in school, but at others they’ve come to meet me bursting to share their pride at a test result or a piece of artwork. Sometimes they’ve been downbeat, affected by friendship fallouts or tribulations at home; sometimes I have been too. In some meetings, they’ve only wanted to talk about their weekend plans and last night’s Love Island, but in others they’ve shared with me grand plans, worries and dreams for the future – and I’ve shared with them my own. 

My first two mentees each left school to take up employment, passing on their contact details to stay in touch. My current mentee is a little younger; in our meetings, we often share an activity like colouring in or - on special occasions - snack together on cupcakes and hot chocolate. I ask her how maths has been and she asks me how wedding planning is going, arching her eyebrow knowingly when I say for the third week running that I’ve made little progress. 

A lot of people in my life have expressed how difficult they’d find it to be a mentor, to go back into school and to talk one-to-one with a teenager for an hour every week. In a way they’re right – building relationships takes time and conversations can be stilted and awkward at first, while a young person justifiably sizes you up and decides how they feel about you. And some of their life experiences are upsetting and difficult to talk about, though ample training and support is provided by MCR and its talented and committed staff before and during every mentoring relationship. 

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But in another sense, it’s the easiest thing in the world: taking time out of your week to catch up with someone you care about and share common interests with is a privilege and never a chore. MCR rightly celebrates the impact of mentoring on the young people it was designed to champion, but the impact on their mentors is equally meaningful. I’ve learned a lot through my mentoring relationships – not least how TikTok works and how to curl my hair with a straightener – but also about resilience, relationships and responsibility. I leave each meeting with a sense of great connection and gratitude: to my mentee, to the school and its staff, to my diverse and vibrant local community. 

These are the things we lose when we strip a society down to its barest bones: the connections, conversations and communities that wouldn’t exist otherwise, but which have a profound impact on those engaged in them. We might be able to keep a city running by funding the bare essentials and slashing away at everything else, but we will all be far poorer for it. 

For my own part, I hope to meet the person my mentee becomes: to find out what subjects she chooses next year, what career and life ambitions she goes on to develop, whether she gets to go on the European travel adventure I know that she dreams of. We’re just one pair, but thousands of others exist all across this city, each with their own relationships, hopes and plans. To extinguish all those possibilities in one single fell swoop feels almost unimaginable.