Mentoring at SCWA – an eye-opener.

It seemed like a no-brainer, in 2014.  The Company wanted volunteers to start a mentoring scheme at the Academy.  I had the time, and after completing the very thorough safeguarding checks, was delighted to be deemed eligible.

But did I have the qualifications?  Ok, I had a lifetime experience in business, managing and helping those reporting to me to develop.  And yes, some years ago I’d been on a short coaching course.  That was after I retired, and I had never put that learning into practice – not even with (on?) my nine grandchildren. 

I admit that those nine were a good part of my motivation.  Back then, the eldest was 10; so ‘practising’ on an older SCWA pupil might, I thought, stand me in good stead later when striving to expand the mind-set of those rather closer to my heart. 

That’s OK, I rationalised.  The books say that in the best mentor/mentee relationships, both parties gain.  And I was pretty sure that I could add something to the outlook and life view of my yet-to-be- allocated pupil.

That was confirmed in spades at the briefing arranged for us new mentors.  “A significant percentage of the pupils are eligible for free school meals.  Whether your mentee comes from such a household or not, none of the families will have anything like the breadth of life experience – or the contacts - that you can bring to them.” 

And that has been proved true, three times.  My first, year 10, mentee’s parents both owned businesses in the service sector but while the family work ethic was incredibly strong, my guy had no concept of what else he might aim for – or where his skills and interests in art and IT might take him if developed.  By luck, my daughter in law had a good friend who worked as an animator for various TV programmes, and I managed to take my guy, plus three of his fellow pupils and one of the SCWA teaching staff, to spend a few hours in one of the largest independent TV production companies, with the animator as our guide.  It was eye-opening stuff for them, and for me too!  

The work ethic of my second, again year 10, mentee was no less strong.  A bright young lady whose parent is a skilled tradesman, she already saw her future in bookkeeping and accountancy – ideally working for a company in the fashion industry.  But why would they choose her, from all other applicants, I asked?  Guiding her to find ways of answering that question became the focus of our bi-monthly sessions.  

Despite feeling I had helped both pupils, I found working with 14 year olds somewhat unsatisfactory as  the world of work seemed very far away for both.  So discussions about possible GCSE choices, and what paths each might open or close, all seemed rather unreal to them.  So last year I asked for a year 12 student.  And boy, was this a life-changer for me. 


I’ve been incredibly lucky, and led a very sheltered life.  I have never been abused, nor lived with alcoholics.  No one in my family died prematurely.  No one went hungry.  No one was disabled in any way.  No one had to battle against the odds.

My third mentee was paraplegic from birth – and had always battled against the odds.  He was a fighter through and through.  Utterly charming, but a fighter nevertheless. 

Studying Film (his passion) Drama, and Media, he had a very clear view that while his disabilities would be a real problem ‘on set’, they would be immaterial in script writing and other pre-production roles.  So he had set his sights on being accepted for the Film Studies course at Greenwich University. 

I cannot remember how many points he needed to secure his place, but a top score for his ‘project’ was essential.  He wanted to focus on some aspect of disability, and we worked up to “the role of media in changing perceptions of disability”.   The Paralympic Games in Rio had recently finished, and while they did not get the same coverage as those in London in 2012, there was no doubt that they had brought some very different body shapes into UK living rooms.  TV viewership had peaked at 3.27million, but never dropped below one million.  Worldwide audience figures topped 3.4billion.   

Serendipity again…  at a lunch party with some neighbours I discovered that their daughter had a major role in the TV production company that covered both Paralympic Games for Channel 4.  So my mentee was able to visit Channel 4, with the team from Sunset and Vine (S&V), and take part in a meeting at which the success (or otherwise) of the programming was analysed with a Professor from Bournemouth University. 

He further refined his project title after that meeting.  But more importantly he came back with a new ambition.  Yes, of course he was going to get the points needed for Greenwich.  But when he graduated…  why should he not aim for a front of camera role?  He’d found out that Channel 4’s remit to S&V had stipulated the use of disabled presenters for the Paralympics.  As none were known, the production company set about recruiting and training new, disabled, presenters.  The chemistry between some of them was so obvious that they trialled and then launched the highly popular Paralympic spin-off ‘The Last Leg’.  

If Adam Hills and Alex Booker can be front of camera, why not me?  My mentee stated.    

But this was not to be.  The use of the past tense is no accident.  He died having lost his courageous battle with cancer.  He was passionate about education and continued to attend school throughout his treatment achieving top grades in his year 11 and sixth form exams.

His funeral was like no other I have ever been to, with well over 500 people attending including many SCWA students and staff.  The photographs displayed – my mentee on the shoulders of his brother at the Reading Festival, for instance – were testament to his determination to live life to the full, and to his family’s total commitment to supporting him in his ambitions.  Some of his friends spoke, as did members of the SCWA special needs support team.  Everyone cried, everyone laughed.  It was an exceptionally life-affirming experience. 

Let me go back to that statement from that first mentors briefing;  “ Your life experience and contacts can raise students’ aspirations and sharing them with interested students really is a no brainer.”  Their sights are raised, and their perspective changes.  It is the least we can do for any mentee.

But as mentor I gained too, in trumps.  I commend the programme to you. 

James Benn – 31 August 2017.

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