what can mentoring
in whose interests is it set up?
and anyway - how does it actually work?
Education and Career-learning Consultant
moving-on in career becomes progressively more complicated and fraught
we have learned to call on a more diverse range of providers of
help. They include mentors informal helpers, usually based
outside our organisations, untrained in career development but able
on other bases to make contact with people for whom career planning
is a big challenge.
Meijers brings a well-informed Netherlands perspective on mentoring,
This is his review of Helen Colleys recent book on mentoring.
Helen, Frans questions easy assumptions about mentoring. Both understand
how policy-driven rhetoric can over-simplify and rose-tint harder
realities. And Frans applauds to how Helen gathers the evidence
to show how this is so.
he has some reservations about how far Helens basic thinking
can take us in putting matters right. And his conclusion in this
review poses incisive and challenging questions for the mentoring
is widely regarded as a panacea for overcoming barriers in education,
training and work. This is especially so in the UK and the USA,
but also applies in The Netherlands. Politicians are quick to praise
its influence, seeing mentors as instruments of social inclusion.
There is, however, almost no empirical evidence to support the claim.
Most research fails to show a positive relationship between participating
in a mentoring scheme and social inclusion.
A great flow of non-scientific literature nonetheless celebrates
mentoring as one of the most successful and popular interventions
of the last decade. It portrays a happy relationship, where emotional
labour makes the mentor a role model. And, as this happens,
the learner is assumed to be reintegrated with education and society
- or soon will be.
with concrete experience of mentoring - be it as mentor, professional
or researcher - knows that the reality is far more complex. In most
relationships the mentor does not become a role model, often because
it is a forced relationship. And, even when mentoring achieves a
stable relationship, which is seen to be helpful in the micro-level
relationship, the meso-level scheme expects goals other than they
recognise as valuable. And these very pressures risk the re-exclusion
of the learner.
Colley sets out to portray mentoring schemes and relationships reaching
beyond uncritical applause. She sums up her intentions like this...
have written this book to bear witness to the complexity of real-life
mentor relationships, and to the fact that they are not always happy.
I have tried to explain the roots of the unhappiness I observed
in a number of cases, pointing to the unrealistic expectations that
policy-makers have of mentoring for social inclusion and to the
age-old assumption that carers most often women should
nurture others in a self-sacrificing way... In doing so, I offer
a new theoretical analysis of mentoring, one which applies sociological
ideas, rather than an individual, psychological approach.
book is in three parts.
one describes the rise of the movement. In the last decade
one form of mentoring has become dominant: engagement mentoring
for social inclusion. This model aims to re-engage young people
with the formal labour market by altering their attitudes, values
and behaviours. Helen Colley locates engagement mentoring in relation
to the major economic, social and political developments of the
late twentieth century. These developments require hard
targets: examples are educational goals for school-related behaviour
and academic progress; social goals for the reduction of criminality
and substance abuse; and employment-goals for entry to the labour
market or training programmes.
is also an attempt to define mentoring by unravelling the myths
of Mentor, the man who took care of Odysseuss son. Helen Colley
argues that previous studies of mentoring have been flawed by their
individualised focus on its power dynamics, and by their tendency
to dis-embed the practice of mentoring from its broader context.
She argues that such studies divert attention from negative effects
of mentoring and ignore the potential subordination of mentors
particularly women to the control of dominant groups.
two presents data from empirical research on the New
Beginnings project. Helen Colley interviewed nine mentors
and eleven learners. Further interviews followed up-to twelve months
later. Information about the meso-level context came from interviews
with staff and managers. All of this resulted in 44 tape-recorded
and transcribed interviews.
New Beginnings scheme is shown to be shaped by policy
imperatives and funding requirements. Detailed individual case studies
give a focus on the young people which reveals their resistance
towards aspects of the scheme, and their assertion of their own
agendas. The cases studies also show important benefits from mentoring,
although often these did not coincide with scheme expectations.
This part of the book resembles the work of Paul Willis in Learning
to Labour, and other work from the 1970s. Helen Colley also
elaborates in depth the ways in which mentors perceived normative
pressures within the scheme to adapt or conceal their own identities
through the process of mentoring.
three presents a theoretical analysis of mentoring, with
recommendations for policy and practice. Some of the questions raised
in Part One are revisited in the light of the case stories. Helen
Colley draws on feminist readings of Bourdieu, Foucault and Marxist
theory to examine the interplay of structure and agency in mentor
relationships. She argues that mentoring is constructed as a labour
process, to alter learners dispositions, in line with current
employer demands. A number of issues are raised for policy, practice
and research. Central in all of this is Helen Colleys opinion
that engagement mentoring policy contains a counter-productive paradox:
the more mentoring seeks to ensure outcomes related to employment,
the less successful it is likely to be for a significance number
of young people.
overall study is important in several ways.
It provides very insightful and detailed information on what is
actually going on in mentor relationships. As stated earlier,
empirical data on the content and the process of mentoring are
almost completely lacking.
is one of the very few studies that give mentors and learners
a voice. By doing so, the study provides invaluable information
for politicians and practitioners who really strive for the re-engagement
of marginalised youth.
It focuses on
power within mentor relations and mentor schemes. All too often,
schemes for (re-)integration of marginalised youth in practice
exclude (parts of) their target groups, especially because they
foster a blame the victim culture without empowering
the youngsters in any respect.
It is a well-written book.
theoretical analysis is, however, the weak part of this study. Helen
Colley does not connect in a trustworthy way the detailed micro-processes
with meso- and macro-level processes. The main reason for this is
her starting point that...
the theoretical basis of mentoring nor its application in practice
can advance without a clear understanding of the nature of power
and its functioning in mentor relationships.
this hypothesis is correct, but nowhere in the study is it argued
why this starting point is better than others. It is therefore concretised
in a non-dynamic way. The theories of power, especially of Foucault
and Bourdieu, are used in such a way that an almost absolute opposition
is created between the interests of the learner and the interests
of the scheme and, behind that, dominant interests in society.
The conclusion then is evident: engagement mentoring represents
a form of control. A few quotes illustrate this line of reasoning...
young people to become employable is a contradiction in terms, if
employability means compliance with the interests of employers and
other dominant groupings.
+ power = repressive control...
Dyad + reciprocity/solidarity/absence of power = empowerment.
more productive way to understand social exclusion is to see it
as a process that society inflicts on disadvantaged young people,
rather than as a characteristic of young people themselves... rather
than looking for ways to "improve" young people, we could
start by acknowledging the positive resources they possess.
Mentoring for social inclusion should aim to transform others
attitudes, values, behaviours, beliefs that discriminate against
disadvantaged youth, as well as institutional discrimination and
course Helen Colley is right to say that inclusion mentoring is
often a form of social control. But, at the same time, it is true
that at least a minority of these youngsters have a habitus
- values and practices - that make prevailing work relations difficult
for them to manage. Some of the interview transcripts, make this
very clear. The theoretical framework Helen Colley uses, does not
permit her to acknowledge both sides of the situation.
when the question comes up about how mentoring should be designed
in the future, she is forced to repeat the deficit-difference issue
first set out in the sociology of education of the 1970s.
In this restatement, the habitus of socially-excluded youngsters
is not a deficit but a difference. Many in contemporary society,
and not only the powerful, would not agree with Helen Colley about
that. But, from this point of view, it is not the oppressed
youngsters who need to change, it is society. It was Basil Bernstein
who, in 1975, entered this controversy by asserting education
cannot compensate for society.
same can, of course, be said of engagement mentoring. And that realisation
would lead us to see that the most productive help for socially-excluded
youngsters would be to offer youngsters a real chance to engage
in the current (rather than hoped-for) social structures. It will
need, not so much a theory of power, but a learning theory. Foucault
and Bourdieu, and in their slip-stream Hodkinson and
his associates, do not provide a firm base for exploring and explaining
how people change. And Helen Colley is left to explain change as
often be the result of unpredictable serendipity.
is an appeal to a deus-ex-machina, explaining nothing,
and leaving the question about what anybody can do about it unanswered.
Nonetheless, the book contains a lot of empirical material, providing
a possible foundation for a learning theory for mentoring. One of
its most important findings is that...
young people are allowed to negotiate mentor relationships on the
basis of their own needs and concerns, they usually perceive mentoring
in a highly positive way, and can identify important benefits they
have gained from their experience.
learners are not in a position to negotiate externally imposed goals
active resistance is provoked. Such findings are consistent with
the so-called constructivist approach to learning. In
this approach constructing a strong learning environment
stands central. This is a learning environment which offers concreteness,
relevance and the opportunity for dialogue with experienced adults
as well as companions in distress.
despite my reservations about its theoretical usefulness, Helen
Colleys book is well worth reading. It is an excellent piece
of research and will support much needed new thinking about mentoring.
Mentoring for Social Inclusion - A critical approach to nurturing
London: Routledge-Falmer (ISBN 0-415-31110-1)
ARE IN THE MAGAZINE SECTION
of the Career-learning Café
the 'a good read' section
Frans Meijers' policy analysis
more on the diversification
of help with career planning
more on linking
learning-theory to habitus
any thoughts for Frans?- firstname.lastname@example.org
back to café career magazine
- a good read