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what can mentoring do?
in whose interests is it set up?
and – anyway - how does it actually work?


Frans Meijers
Education and Career-learning Consultant
The Netherlands

As 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.

Frans Meijers brings a well-informed Netherlands perspective on mentoring, This is his review of Helen Colley’s recent book on mentoring.

Like 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.

But he has some reservations about how far Helen’s basic thinking can take us in putting matters right. And his conclusion in this review poses incisive and challenging questions for the mentoring movement.

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.

Everybody 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.

Helen Colley sets out to portray mentoring schemes and relationships reaching beyond uncritical applause. She sums up her intentions like this...

‘I 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.’

The book is in three parts.

Part 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.

There is also an attempt to define mentoring by unravelling the myths of Mentor, the man who took care of Odysseus’s 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.

Part 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.

The ‘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.

Part 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 Colley’s 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.

The 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.
> It 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.

The 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...

‘neither 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.’

Perhaps 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...

‘Empowering young people to become employable is a contradiction in terms, if employability means compliance with the interests of employers and other dominant groupings.’

‘Dyad + power = repressive control...
Dyad + reciprocity/solidarity/absence of power = empowerment.’

‘A 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 others barriers.’

Of 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.

And 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’.

The 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 something which...

‘may often be the result of unpredictable serendipity’.

This 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...

‘when 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.’

Where 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’.

However, despite my reservations about its theoretical usefulness, Helen Colley’s book is well worth reading. It is an excellent piece of research and will support much needed new thinking about mentoring.


Helen Colley
Mentoring for Social Inclusion - A critical approach to nurturing mentor relationships
London: Routledge-Falmer (ISBN 0-415-31110-1)


of the Career-learning Café
in the 'a good read' section

more on Frans Meijers' policy analysis
more on the diversification of help with career planning
more on linking learning-theory to habitus

any thoughts for Frans?-

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