Perspectives on Educational Mentoring

An education mentor’s blog

December 2019

In order to maintain confidentiality, all personal names have been changed.

First steps

I met my first mentee “Josh” in March 2014.   He immediately challenged my expectations of the composite Stamford Hill stereotype in almost every way. He had been secular for several years yet was still living and working in Stamford Hill. He spoke excellent English and was dressed in edgy, urban chic with extensive calligraphic tattoos. Far from a graduate of yeshiva and kollel, he had struggled at his religious schools, in low-ability classes without assessment of his learning difficulties. The highly intelligent Josh now wanted to catch up on his secular education but had no knowledge of the system or where to begin finding out. After five months of regular mentoring he made his first phone call to an FE college, with me standing a few feet away to give him courage, which confirmed what I already knew from professional experience: that the first step is the single hardest to take, and the one where the mentor’s time and step-by-step guidance and support is most needed.

Stereotype still not confirmed

By contrast, the self-assured “Manny” came to our first meeting in February 2015 in a north London pub dressed in full Stamford Hill garb, having just delivered a baby goat on his small home farm. He wanted advice on Masters programmes, after finishing a part-time BSc degree at the University of London, with first-class honours. He was moving his family to a more modern orthodox part of north London, wanting to maintain a certain degree of religious belief and lifestyle. Manny wanted always to retain control of the mentoring relationship and stick to single educational issues only: how to write an effective Personal Statement, how to succeed at interviews, how to access student funding, and how best to write essays and revise for exams. Manny completed his masters and went on to professional work in clinical practice. 

Not a brief encounter

Unlike the secular Josh and the more orthodox Manny, “Abe” was initially the most outwardly conforming of the three, and entirely dependent on the social and financial structures of his community. Our first meeting was a cloak and dagger affair, with Abe unable to enter a café for fear of being spotted. He was certainly highly visible in his large black hat, breeches and gabardine! He was already reading science books and in particular physiology works to support his interest in becoming a clinical practitioner. Although his command of English was in need of more work, and he had little maths instruction, this intellectually able man could have achieved his goal of entering university, within two of three years, via basic qualifications and a science Access course. Yet, despite being clear that he had lost his faith and wanted to change his life, Abe felt tied down by temperament, finances, and filial and familial duty.  It was soon clear that Abe would be needing longer term support from Mavar in taking manageable steps towards educational and career independence, and indeed, he remains associated with us five years later. He hasn’t always followed a systematic path, preferring sometimes to take digressions or short cuts. I admit that this was and remains frustrating from the mentoring viewpoint. And yet, while taking two steps forward and one back – all the while still embedded in Stamford Hill – Abe has gained a Maths GCSE and a Level 2 English qualification, completed work placements and continuing education courses in his clinical field, and is half-way through a part-time BA which capitalises on his prior religious education. Whatever his eventual education and career destinations, he will make all the choices himself and dictate the pace he is comfortable with, which is as it should be.

The education specialist’s role

I’ve since mentored many more, including a number based in Manchester or Israel. Increasingly, I’ve tended to move from general mentoring to an education specialist’s role, supporting other mentors or their mentees directly, particularly where the goal is university entry or a professional qualification.

As an education mentor you have to identify education/careers goals and aspirations very early in the process, even if these will later shift and clarify. I can best describe the educational guidance process as a tree, with the aim of the exercise being to help the mentee end up on the right twig on the right branch of that tree. There are many forks in the road (to change the metaphor) and not all roads interconnect, so a great deal of care has to be taken in planning the route so as to allow opportunities for changes of mind and direction. Like most mature students, those from Charedi backgrounds usually don’t have the luxury of open choices in respect of courses, funding or time. They may have left the family home and source of income and must work at the same time as study, supporting children and dependent (or resistant) spouses. You have to give them the facts, and describe the alternatives, timescales and costs involved. You must be truthful about the effort and commitment needed. But you must also be sensitive not to crush dreams too early, even where the mentee is probably unsuited or where the aspiration is unaffordable. Conversely, you must also seek to raise the bar for the mentee who has great capacity, but displays the common tendency of putting themselves down as ignorant of all things. The managing of expectations and the dispelling of doubts is a subtle play, but with ongoing encouragement or problem-solving mentees can move productively towards their aspirations.

From basic qualifications to university

Although new mentees don’t always know where they want to end up, ex-Charedi men – whose limited secular learning stops at thirteen – almost always need to gain Level 2 Functional Skills qualifications in Maths and English as the adult entry point to onward courses. Fortunately, these two subjects are still free in the FE sector. It’s rarely possible to find other GCSE courses for adults and certainly not free ones, even for GCSE Science which is an essential requirement for entry to many other courses. In general terms, I always prefer to encourage mentees to take courses in a classroom/lecture hall setting where they can acquire academic culture, the habit of secular class discussion, and the benefit of more immediate, responsive teacher support.

Some high ability mentees without any qualifications at all have been able to gain entry to university by assessment interview only, because they had perhaps prior working experience of numbers or IT. Sometimes they were accepted simply because they were exceptional people whose outstanding characteristics included organised and discriminating minds, and on whose academic potential university admissions tutors were taking a calculated risk. The (not so easy) trick is for the mentor to identify at the outset who has the intellectual capacity and crucially the organisational skills, motivation and application to skip the notional entry requirements. For self-evident reasons, there is a significant national drop-out rate for mature students and the financial and emotional stakes of failure are high. On the other hand, Mavar mentees often come with an impressive degree of literacy (albeit not in English), the discipline of study, and the textual evidence-based training of an elite religious education. Many an admissions tutor will value these transferable skills, if they can be convinced of the applicant’s drive and capacity to learn new content and modes of testing. Add to these qualities the attitude of a student who has challenged received ideas and you have a potentially rewarding undergraduate to teach.

Women mentees

I’ve had contact through Mavar with about a dozen women seeking career advancement and intellectual fulfillment. They have represented the whole range: single, married, separated, or divorced, often with children. “Hannah”, divorced and working independently in an office, had the ability to consider a Maths degree but had to peg her intellectual ambitions to short training courses in office administration, because she couldn’t support her children otherwise. “Sheine” came to Mavar with fierce intelligence and motivation to achieve secular educational qualifications, yet just about unable to count, read and write even in Yiddish or Hebrew, because she came from a community where girls’ education is limited even beyond the norm in the Charedi world. The brilliant “Esther” completed an Accountancy degree with distinction at a specialist professional college, and now works for a top international firm – all the while continuing to live with her Satmar family. 

Most Charedi women can be said to be educationally advantaged in that they receive more secular education than men and often have a few GCSE’s. Some have even been fortunate enough to be able to negotiate a level of independence which has allowed them to complete a first degree course, for example with the Open University, before approaching Mavar for further guidance. One such woman wanted to start an applied PhD, another a medical degree after her natural sciences BSc, another a PGCE teaching qualification and yet another a BA in Fine Arts. However, the exploration of academic options, before seeking professional guidance through Mavar, hasn’t led everyone to take the easiest, quickest or cheapest route to their goal. You find yourself wishing they had come to Mavar sooner. Nevertheless, you can only wonder at their persistence and strength of character in very trying situations: illness, trauma, caring for children, and sometimes still trying to accommodate Charedi expectations of their role, or juggling ambition with their ongoing belief and practice.

Expansion of Mavar’s education team

My own professional background has largely been in the sixth form sector, which has been useful to my mentoring for Higher Education/Careers guidance, including UCAS applications, Personal Statements, references and mock interviews. However, I’ve had a steep learning curve in respect of basic qualifications, the FE sector and student finance. I was delighted when the education team was expanded to include expertise in the minefield of apprenticeships and vocational training, and more recently by several other highly experienced and qualified education and careers specialists, which allows Mavar to give even more informed, targeted guidance. Here’s to the next five years of progression to educational and career fulfillment!