Sharon McIntyre: Looking after child’s interests is the key

Vulnerable children remain significantly less likely than their peers to realise their potential. Picture: Michael Gillen

Vulnerable children remain significantly less likely than their peers to realise their potential. Picture: Michael Gillen

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Helping youngsters to achieve their potential despite their disadvantages is so rewarding, writes Sharon McIntyre

There are 15,000 “looked after” children in Scotland, and the highest proportion of them – more than 3,000 – live in Glasgow.

Over the past 40 years, outcomes for this vulnerable group have remained devastatingly poor. Despite the best efforts of government, local authorities, social workers and schools, these children remain significantly less likely than their peers to realise their potential.

It may be they face challenging home lives, a disrupted education or have caring responsibilities for a parent. They may severely lack self-confidence and have low self-esteem. But the things other young people take as a given, such as further and higher education, a job or a modern apprenticeship, are things they don’t even dare to dream about.

Just 2 per cent will go to university – compared with 47 per cent of the wider population – and around a third won’t be in employment, education or training when they leave school.

Last year, three-quarters of “looked after” school children who left school were aged 16 and under, compared with one quarter for peers.

Behind each of these numbers is a young person with ideas, ambition and talent held back by circumstances beyond their control. It doesn’t have to be this way.

For the past two years, Wheatley Group has been supporting MCR Pathways Young Glasgow Talent programme, a pioneering mentoring scheme that supports children in and leaving care. Four members of staff have been seconded to work for the programme for a year, while more than 50 have volunteered to be mentors. MCR Pathways works with children aged 13 and over, giving them 1:1 support from a carefully-matched and trained adult mentor in school for an hour each week. It makes school a more nurturing and positive place to be, and encourages participants to stay on, explore their interests and, ultimately, leave with an apprenticeship, job or place at college or university.

It’s a simple idea that has delivered extraordinary results. In 2015, the rate of mentored young people staying in school after the age of 16 rose to 79 per cent, compared with 27 per cent for non-mentored children, and 73 per cent of leavers went on to further and higher education.

These number speak volumes about the impact mentoring has on vulnerable young people. But it doesn’t tell you about the individual young people like Ellie (not her real name), who I’ve been privileged to mentor for 18 months.

When I met her, she was on the verge of dropping out of school. She had low confidence and self-esteem, and felt stigmatised because she was in care. I’ve watched her flourish. The MCR Pathways scheme has given her time and space to talk with someone she can trust and given her the confidence and support to pursue her dreams.

Doors that seemed firmly shut are opening, from a Modern Apprenticeship at Wheatley to a place at college. She has so many plans and is excited about her future for the first time.

My job, as welfare reform manager at Wheatley, is a busy, rewarding role in which I feel I can make a positive difference to the lives of the most vulnerable in our communities. The time I spend with Ellie is a really valuable addition to my working day. I simply don’t have another relationship like it. My own self-esteem, motivation and sense of belief in myself are all strengthened by the time I spend with Ellie. I always leave her feeling calmer and more determined to make a difference.

I’ve seen other members of staff who volunteer grow in confidence and develop empathy, and trouble- shooting skills through mentoring. What organisation wouldn’t want their workforce to have more of those qualities?

Wheatley’s partnership with MCR Pathways is slowly changing the future of children who would have been written off because of their disadvantaged start in life. But there is still so much more to be done.

There are currently more than 400 young people who are mentored through the scheme: a fraction of the people we need to reach to realise our goal of every young person succeeding, regardless of their background. While Wheatley will provide 100 volunteers over the next year in Glasgow alone, more than 1000 young people need a mentor.

Our relationship with MCR Pathways is just one of the ways we are “Making homes and lives better” for families and communities across Scotland.

From the work we do in housing and care to our Wheatley Pledge, which creates more opportunities for people to access jobs and training, we are working to close the gap between the life chances of the most privileged and most deprived children. Wheatley’s chief executive Martin Armstrong believes in the value of the MCR Pathways scheme. But it needs more organisations and more individuals to sign up. Interested?

• Sharon McIntyre is Wheatley Group’s welfare reform manager

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