Mentoring: The Road Less Travelled

Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, is a valuable teaching tool for all ages. A wholly approachable poem, it sets up a metaphor for the ‘traveller’ facing a choice between two paths; the first is rather more ‘worn’. To my mind, this path perfectly reflects the current state of the private tuition market: somewhat overused, dark and murky, under-regulated and an expensive risk for parents demanding better results for their children. If we brush aside the quality-control and trust issues that have beset the private tuition market in recent years, parents and schools still rightly struggle with the moral issues surrounding the never-ending rat race for places in top British schools. The question is always the same: how do I give my child a better chance to gain entry to a top school and achieve in the long-term?

In my role as a mentor I hear many parents demand answers to problems that can’t realistically be bought. Aims are utilitarian, practical, exam-focused. Particularly at 11+, parents are hoping for dramatic and often impossible improvements in psychometric testing results when, in reality, useful work is about acquiring the confidence, comfort and technique to approach assessment days maturely, both for children and for their parents.

Of course there is a place for one-on-one tuition. Specifically targeted help can be enormously useful. But are we perhaps forgetting the things that really matter? That children are happy, fulfilled and confident within themselves, and capable of doing their best. In the end this is all we can ask of them.

Mentoring has so far proved an attractive idea to parents and to schools. I have no desire to offer what schools do so well themselves (the teaching) but what they often admit they don’t have time for. Conversations with several of the most competitive, high-profile schools have proved this, and shown that schools are willing to work in partnership with mentors. Mentoring is the extra-curricular, the culture, the confidence and the added care. Mentors are young, brilliant, inspiring and fun. They combine the job of role model, tutor, advisor and impartial elder sibling. They offer support and care for both students and parents, and not just enable, but guarantee that children are able to do their best.

Though boarding schools have perhaps become less popular with modern parents, I continue to support the all-inclusive, independent and innately mature environment that most boarding schools offer. The same approach is at the core of mentoring. It is an ethos that defines mentoring not as a luxury add-on, but as an essential part of any child’s education. Mentoring helps to build up the organisation and independence skills needed to tackle the intensity of school life, and the variety to enjoy the time beyond it.

I for one hope that parents will feel confident themselves in the job they are doing for their children. Regardless of what school they end up at, what will children remember of their formative years? Rigorous testing in an ‘over-pressured cooker’? Or a balanced and memorable mix of solid school work and all the trimmings that can and should go with it.

It’s a common misconception that Frost’s poem only challenges us to be adventurous; it is also about avoiding indecision. He begs his reader to make a decision, to take hold. As children choose their own path forward, through schools, universities and jobs, there’s frustratingly little we can do to greatly alter their trajectory. Perhaps it’s best we show decisiveness and remind ourselves and them of the excitements that lie beyond the classroom, and the things that make life special. It is through those thrills that they will be encouraged towards greatness. With a little luck, they might even stand an inch or two taller when it comes to 11+.