Hope. A lesson I didn’t teach the children, a lesson they taught me.

The GROW Programme: A Graduate Mentor View by Abigail Wensley

As a Psychology graduate from Sheffield Hallam University I always knew I wished to work with children in a supportive role. That is why when I was beginning to search for jobs after my last and final deadline this one caught my eye. Working as a graduate mentor with ten year tens, coaching them through the changes of leaving lockdown and returning to school. A chance to work with children in a supportive role just like I wished. After an intensive week of training I have not only left with new skills and knowledge but new experiences with children to help me with my future. The GROW program is a program that benefits everyone involved. Some benefits I did not expect:


Graduating into a Covid-19 job market was daunting and just short of terrifying. Smaller job market, more applicants and a seemingly hopeless tirade from the media of all future prospects for our country, let alone little old me, gone. A small project provided a glimmer of hope.

I soon came to realise the magnitude and speed at which this project was being rolled out at. Having no structure during lockdown and my time at university I felt I had been hit square on with a tonne of bricks. I was mentally exhausted from day one and it was a fraction at which the team leading us through this unknown wilderness felt I am sure. The training was intense and varied. However, no amount of training I am sure would make us feel prepared to leave our trench of security and head out into no man’s land carrying our soon to be teen charges on our backs. In an unknown overwhelming post Covid world where I myself felt lost, how was I going to inspire and encourage those dubbed “the lost generation”?


Armed as I was with my new found knowledge and barrage of activities I sat there. Behind my computer, notepad at the ready. Nerves, excitement and dread swirling around my already strained mind. The sudden realisation they may not show up hit. But show up they did.

Children hit down and pushed back by a world out of their control. Struggling to keep up, stay motivated and worst of all stay hopeful. I wasn’t alone in realising that a post Covid world looked bleak. But day after day they showed up, their resilience remarkable and inner drive to do something, anything to help themselves amazed. They worked with me to begin inch by inch crossing no man’s land to the potentially bleak future they faced but a future that was bearing down on them none the less. Slowly but surely as we inched across and progressed through this program their ability to still have goals, hopes and dreams made that future look just a little less terrifying.


Each individual child progressed miles during this program. Each facing a unique challenge to their future. These children have had it hard. There’s no denying the impact of Covid has had on them is unknown and the extent probably won’t be felt or anticipated to its fullest for a while. However, I believe between us I inspired them while they inspired me. A two-way door I was not expecting. I myself along with hundreds of thousands of other graduates are about to start traipsing the long hard path to our future. This, while not the same path, runs parallel to that of the students returning to their education in September. The largest change I have seen appear on that path, hope. Hope for themselves, hope for their goals, hope for their future. We each must now navigate ourselves through this new and daunting world, and each inch we make across no man’s land, each painful terrifying step, is fuelled by one thing. Hope. A lesson I didn’t teach the children, a lesson they taught me.

Lions Led by Donkeys

A tutor perspective of the GROW Programme by Mark Dowdeswell

After nearly thirty years of working with teenagers as a history teacher, Head of Department, Head of Year, SENCO, Safeguarding lead and senior manager, I can safely say I have never experienced anything that has had such an impact on children or been so challenging to me as a teacher as the experiences of the first seven months of 2020. So, when I was approached by Richard Pountney, Principal Lecturer in Education at SHU about the opportunity to help produce materials for the GROW Programme, a new project designed to help Y10/11 students re-engage with education post COVID-19 lockdown, via a mentoring programme delivered by recent SHU graduates, the need was, sadly, all too obvious. So, where angels fear to tread, I rushed in:


Strange times.  A lifetime fighting in the trenches of education, suddenly catapulted into the role of sending others over the top. End of the school year, worn thin by lockdown, why bother? Three reasons; me, them and those wonderful teenagers. Worried about this generation for a long time; no resilience, over-reliant on others, avoiding responsibility. Totally ill-equipped to cope with the tsunami of COVID and lockdown. And yet… in all those long years in the classroom, I’ve seen something, rare glimpses, fleeting shadows; compassion, empathy, the desire to be on the side of the angels. No one would wish COVID on the world but now that it’s here maybe, just maybe, it could be the making of them.

Something of a surprise then when the leaders of the GROW programme asked me to help write the content of mentoring sessions. Too intrigued to ignore it, had to investigate. Before I knew it, I was in. Then the doubts. Years of moaning about ‘them’ and how they had no idea about the reality of helping children. And now I was ‘them’; sending the troops over the top armed only with the weapons I’d provided. Lions led by donkeys? Probably.


Met the troops. Better or worse? Not sure. I like them; committed to the cause and ready for the challenge. They’re stepping up, young graduates wanting to make a difference, looking beyond themselves. Excellent. But now I’m responsible. Not abstractly but to real people. They’re relying on me. Can’t let them down. So, re-fill the coffee, recalibrate sleep, let’s go again. This has got to be right.

1.00 a.m., hard yards. How does a twenty-one-year old explain ‘resilience’ to a fifteen-year-old? Can’t help smiling; much of a muchness really – me, them, the pupils. Onwards.


Well, well, well. Recording of a graduate mentoring a pupil. It works! Thank goodness for editors! I can hear the pupil resurfacing after lockdown, re-engaging, re-visioning, reversing the ratchet. Wonderful. Reality check; the material sets it up but it’s the graduate mentor playing the shots. Excellent, how it should be. Two for one; the graduate grows into the mentor; the pupil grows from the mentoring. Good name, that; GROW programme.

Lions led by donkeys? Quite possibly but listen to those lions roar. If we can keep this going, if we really commit to this, we’ve got a chance; a fight nobody was looking for might just turn out to be the making of them us.

What do schools think about GROW?

The GROW project has been designed by and for schools. We’re delighted to have captured some of their thoughts on how the pilot has been working in different school settings, the impact on their pupils and how it has affected their plans for the next school year.

Firth Park Academy, Sheffield

In this short video, Mirus Iwaskow, Assistant Principal at Firth Park Academy, reflects on how the GROW project, and in particular the trained Graduate Mentors, have supported his students to reflect on how Covid-19 has affected them personally, as well as encouraging them to plan for the future.

XP School, Doncaster

Below Jamie Portman, Principal of XP and XP East Schools, Doncaster discusses the ‘power’ of the GROW project, the great response from his students, and XP’s plans to extend and embed the project into their academic year.


GROW Mentoring: A positive tomorrow for today’s young people

Sue O’Brien is a strategic lead for the South Yorkshire Futures Social Mobility Programme at Sheffield Hallam University and is a member of the Sheffield Institute of Education’s Leadership team. Sue is also the Programme Director and Course Tutor for the GROW Mentoring project.

On the 19th June The Government announced plans to spend £1 billion on tutoring and coaching to help vulnerable pupils catch up at school as they return after lockdown. This is a very welcome initiative but as with  all initiatives the devil will be in the detail. If we take the approach that subject tutoring alone is the answer then we do our young people and our schools a disservice.

In our region and across the country, schools work hard to engage and inspire their pupils day in and day out. Schools have continued to work relentlessly to support their children and young people through this most challenging of times. They have continued to recognise and deliver the support that their pupils need that goes far beyond curriculum boundaries.

But they need more help,  we  know that doing nothing extra will mean that  the Coronavirus pandemic  will leave  thousands in real danger of believing the narrative that’s surrounding them: that they will  become tomorrow’s social problems: tomorrow’s education drop-outs, tomorrow’s drug users and tomorrow’s potential crime wave. And we know that doing nothing could make this a reality.

Our teachers and school leaders are brilliant and resilient, and will support them through this with wider support from the education sector. They – and we – know that our young people have the power to change the world and build a bright future from this period in our history. We don’t believe that this will be a tale of a doomed future for a lost generation – unless we allow that to happen.

In  South Yorkshire we’re great at creative solutions to problems, we have  strong partnerships with our schools with whom we are working to provide this support : we also have a generation of local graduates who are finishing their degrees this Summer and who aren’t sure what the jobs market holds for them right now. So Sheffield Hallam University is working with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership to train and mobilise those graduates and to connect them with schools so that they can help ensure next year’s GCSE cohort reconnect and thrive in school.

In September, we aim to deploy Hallam graduates from the class of 2020 across schools in the Sheffield City Region, which includes Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. Each graduate will mentor a small number of pupils for a fixed period, forming a network of support at this critical time in their lives.

At Sheffield Hallam we’re already experts in supporting pupil wellbeing: we work with a charity called Trauma Informed Schools  UK which aims to put good mental health at the heart of school life, and our initial  teacher education includes a compulsory  element on its approach.

We should be in no doubt that pupils will be returning to school affected in a variety of ways as a result of the lockdown. That will impact how they manage their behaviour, it will impact their relationships and their self-esteem, and it may well leave many defensive, angry and unable to learn. If we do nothing.

Our approach is backed by solid research evidence: for instance from Public Health England, which highlighted in a briefing for head teachers just how strongly a child’s level of wellbeing is linked to academic success, good behaviour and motivation.

A literature review by the Education Endowment Foundation concluded that measurable factors such as self-control and school engagement were correlated not just with attainment but also with improved finances later in life, and reduced crime. The Department for Education recognises this – in fact self-regulation has become something of a buzz-phrase and has been written into the early years curriculum along with Social and Emotional Learning.

The research shows that these approaches can give pupils between four and seven months’ additional progress on attainment – but only if they’re embedded and used in a sustainable way. We also know those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who are less likely to have the support of positive role models at home, are more likely to lack confidence and to doubt that they will succeed: so they need this help more than most.

During lockdown we have all experienced to varying degrees a loss of direction, loss of connection and loss of control – we all need to find that again, to know how to reconnect and see what’s positive about the future.   For many vulnerable young people school was their safe place, their escape, their structure.  Young people who already felt they were being left behind are now hearing that it’s too late for them to catch up and that their future employment chances are bleak.

Our programme will match those young people with graduates from their own areas – graduates who understand what they’re going through and who are young enough themselves to remember and connect with all those feelings.

These graduate mentors  will undergo comprehensive training, possibly with accreditation, to ensure they have the skills to motivate, engage and build positive relationships with pupils. They will need to show qualities and skills that go far beyond subject knowledge.

Their role will be to help pupils to see the purpose of education, and to support them in planning their future journeys.

Our graduates will benefit too: at a time of economic turmoil and with high levels of unemployment, they will gain work experience and life-skills along with an impressive addition to their CVs which should help them in their chosen careers: who knows, some of them may even decide to work in education.

We believe our programme is scalable, and that ministers should take note. We need an approach that recognises the potential achievement and aspirations of a generation that could so easily become lost.  We see them as the solution, our plan is to support them to make good choices to realise their potential.