Mentoring: Unlocking their potential


The Unlocking Potential mentoring programme – a partnership between AQA and the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust – is being continued in 2013 after remarkable success last year. Andrew Hall explains how you can nominate your students.

I was getting into trouble, smoking weed and bunking off school.”

How many times do teachers encounter scenarios such as this, and sigh in resignation, imagining what comes next – wasted potential and a future that is dull at best, or grim at worst?

The young person who said this to me, however, went on to add: “Now I’m working hard so I can become a fireman.”

A much happier story, I think all teachers would agree. But turnarounds like this don’t typically materialise out of thin air – more usually, they are the result of dedicated intervention work from a teacher, parent or social worker, often over the course of months.

We used to run an awards scheme that recognised academic achievement, but we decided that it was time to develop a new programme that focused on the student, rather than their exam results. We want to do something to help young people who have faced challenges realise their true potential. 

When we talked to teachers they said they often came across students who had lots to offer, but needed a bit of extra support to unearth that as it was often buried under a complicated set of family or home problems.  

After looking at a number of possible partners, we decided that the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust had exactly what we were looking for. The Trust really understands what engages and motivates young people, so we teamed up to put the ideas we had on an in-depth mentoring approach into practice. 

Together, we developed the Unlocking Potential programme, now in its second year, to help young people who have shown commitment and integrity in the face of challenging personal circumstances. The programme is unique in giving teachers the opportunity to identify the young people they know who would really benefit from the focused support of a skilled mentor. We are in direct contact with many schools on a daily basis and invited teachers throughout the country to nominate their students.

From what we have heard, teachers value the chance to give students this kind acknowledgement, validation and structured support. As one teacher, Nicola Lochery, from Meadows Care, a school in Rochdale, told us: “I would definitely recommend the programme to other teachers, because it gives young people who have great potential an opportunity to show how good they are outside of the classroom, and it involves lots of other kinds of learning besides academic.”

Recent research has shown that mentoring programmes do make a difference to young people’s behavioural, social, emotional and academic outcomes, and can help to improve several of these areas at the same time.

Teachers and mentors have both told us how successful the programme has been for their students this year. They highlight growing confidence, developing skills such as presenting to an audience, leading a team and event – organising, and noted that it also improved the behaviour in class and attendance of some of the students who had previously found this a struggle.

The mentors told us that Unlocking Potential’s longer duration gave them enough time to truly get to know and understand the young people. 

This in-depth understanding, developed over six months of one-to-one sessions, gave that extra boost to the mentors’ own passion and enthusiasm.    

The athlete mentors proved to be fantastic role models. The Olympic and Paralympic Games in London this summer showcased the inspirational sporting achievements from all over the world. Top athletes possess particular qualities and values such as personal dedication, ambition and discipline, which is why we believe they are uniquely placed to offer support and encouragement to young people. 

Teachers think so too, Ms Lochery added: “I think the choice of athletes as mentors was perfect, people who have achieved to such a high level are inspiring and can channel that passion for their sport into the mentoring work they do.”

It is fantastic to see what a difference a little more help and support can make, and we hope that the inspiration of their athlete mentors will help drive these young people to succeed further in the future. 

We are so pleased with the results of Unlocking Potential that we have decided to continue the programme in 2013. You can nominate your students now (see further information).

We are keen to encourage any teacher who feels that a student or students would benefit from the encouragement of an athlete mentor to get in touch and nominate the young people whose potential they would like to unlock. 

Case study: Nathan Milner

Nathan Milner, 15, is enthusiastic about encouraging and helping other young people and is involved in a great deal of volunteer and charity work in his local area. 

The pastoral co-ordinator at his school realised that, with the help of an athlete mentor, Nathan would be able to build up the skills required in his charity work and take this further. For this reason, she nominated him for the Unlocking Potential programme. 

Nathan’s mentor was Neil Danns, a former European skateboarding champion. Nathan and Neil worked together to plan his social action project.

Nathan knew that he wanted to work with young people, and had already forged links with the local fire service in Bury, as well as Bury Football Club, to explore the possibility of working with them to reach young people in the area. 

With Neil’s help, Nathan devised a series of activity days for children and young people aged eight to 15, to take place over the summer holidays: one focused around fire safety with the help of the local fire service, and two multi-activity workshops. The activity days were a great success, with around 20 young people attending each session.

Neil told us: “It was great to see Nathan take pride in himself as the children cheered and clapped at the end of the activity day. I hope he takes that feeling into the future.”

Neil has watched Nathan’s confidence grow and sees him reaping the benefits of his hard work: “Throughout the programme, Nathan has really, really given it his best and worked hard. His confidence around other people has grown, and it’s also had an effect on his engagement at school: his attendance has gone up, and his behaviour in class is better.”

AQA chief executive, Andrew Hall, said: “Nathan is the perfect example of what we hoped the Unlocking Potential programme would achieve: he has gained new skills and has been able to build upon the potential spotted by his teachers.”

Unlocking Potential 

Last year we asked teachers to identify the young people they knew who would really benefit from the focused support of a skilled mentor. A judging panel made up of members of the teaching community, higher education and industry, then got together to choose the 20 young people who would take part. 

They were paired with elite athlete mentors such as Olympian and Commonwealth champion swimmer Adam Whitehead, judo Olympian Chloe Cowen, and world champion extreme inline skater Jenna Downing. 

The programme began in May 2012 with a national day in London where the participants met their mentors. Over the course of the next six months, they ran a social action project in their local community, supported throughout by an athlete mentor from the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust and the teacher who nominated them. These projects were incredibly diverse: for example, one organised activity days for young people, another sold hand-made jewelry to raise funds for a local hospital, one organised a sponsored swim to raise awareness of swimming facilities for disabled people, while another collected second-hand books to send to schools in Africa.

  • Andrew Hall is the chief executive of AQA.

Further information
To nominate a student for the Unlocking Potential programme, visit

CAPTION: A sporting chance: Dame Kelly Holmes with some of the participants from the 2012 Unlocking Potential programme


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