Using mentoring to raise student aspirations


The Brightside mentoring programme helps to raise students’ aspirations when it comes to careers and higher education. One of its early supporters was Imperial College London, which still embraces the vital role of mentoring today. Annalisa Alexander expl

It has long been understood that peer-tutoring is a hugely beneficial way to encourage and support pupils who need an extra boost.

The rationale behind choosing which pupils should be put forward for support has historically been very much dependant on the teachers’ perspective, but now it is becoming more clear that pupils are taking control of their educational aspirations and seeking mentoring support on their own.

There are a variety of opportunities that they can tap into either through their own online research or through prompting by teaching professionals within their school setting. 

Seeking mentoring support from university undergraduates is one such way that I have seen pupils not only increase their aspirations but also reap the more tangible benefits of actually raising their academic attainment as a result of the support and guidance they are receiving.

With the advent of the Access Agreement in Higher Education, e-mentoring schemes are growing in popularity across the country, as it is effectively mentoring without (geographical) borders. The recent Ofsted Annual Report pointed to some regional discrepancies concerning pupil attainment, so having a system that can be accessed equally by any pupil with internet access anywhere in the country could go a long way to solving these issues.

At the forefront of e-mentoring, and before the arrival of the Access Agreement, The Brightside Trust – an education charity that helps young people from all backgrounds to access education and career paths that they may not have felt were open to them – piloted a medical e-mentoring scheme back in 2003 with Imperial College (one of the few institutions involved at that stage). 

The basis behind it was to raise awareness of medicine as a career choice to those pupils who came from disadvantaged backgrounds or who lacked the support and encouragement to follow their dreams and become a doctor. 

In most cases, aside from the financial disadvantages these pupils face, there are also quite a lot of less obvious barriers to overcome. If you are the first person in your family to go to university, for example, there will be practical areas of the application process that you may need assistance with, as well as having the expertise of someone who has taken the same or a similar course who can advise you on whether or not you are suitable for it. 

The premise was simple – pair them up with a medical undergraduate student who would act as their guide and mentor and would be able to offer advice about the application process, what it’s like to be a medical student, what work experience might be useful, typical interview questions and so forth. The scheme was a huge success and empowered many pupils, who might otherwise have fallen under the radar, to have the confidence and knowledge to apply to medical school.

Brightside created the mentoring platform and loaded it with a multitude of useful resources, links and career options so that the mentors could signpost their mentees to relevant information and support. 

This is a particularly effective way of working with pupils, as it combines the anecdotal advice and guidance the mentees receive from their mentors with useful tools and resources, meaning that pupils receive practical as well as emotional support. 

The platform was also built with good security systems in place so that the mentors and mentees weren’t able to share any personal contact details, web-links or documents without co-ordinator approval. There was also a list of words and phrases that would block a message until the co-ordinator could check, edit and/or release the message.

Within the first few years of this pilot, it became very clear that the pupils were gaining the experience and understanding of a medical degree that they needed to make an informed choice in year 13. The medical students too were benefiting from the relationship, as many that came forward to be mentors had once been pupils at an underperforming school and therefore understood how important it was to get support and guidance at the right stage.

For this reason, the e-mentoring scheme at Imperial became more focused on year 12 students and with an annual cohort of around 60 to 70 mentoring pairs, was growing rapidly. The Brightside Trust was quick to realise the importance and benefits of this kind of peer-support, and branched its mentoring scheme out across a range of subjects, including business, engineering and chemistry.

As more universities and companies came on board to offer mentoring support to pupils, Brightside refined its mentoring platforms, offering bespoke services that could be exactly tailored to the needs of the mentors and mentees. This expansion also included the introduction of online training, mentor forums, co-ordinator forums and a wider range of resources.

Now operational for more than 10 years, Brightside has helped countless young people to realise and achieve their potential. In many cases, it is simply the reassurance of having someone to ask simple questions to, and having the support of someone who has been in the same position before that makes the difference.

In a recent satisfaction survey, for example, many pupils reported finding their UCAS application form very challenging, but said that help from their mentor – i.e. someone who had been through the same process – was very helpful and made everything a lot clearer for them.

The role of the teacher in raising pupils’ aspirations, and signposting them towards such schemes, has remained highly important. Although a pupil can now search for and find their own mentor, to have the support, knowledge and guidance of a teacher to point them towards the right mentoring scheme will always be critical.

Making use of these available schemes can also help a teacher to spread support across a class of varied abilities, and research being carried out at Imperial College is showing that providing pupils with multiple opportunities (such as face-to-face mentoring, master-classes, university-based summer schools or activities) can rapidly increase their aspirations and attainment. 

To give a brief example of other such opportunities, The Pimlico Connection is one of the country’s longest standing face-to-face peer-tutoring schemes and has been running at Imperial College since 1975. 

A forward-thinking group of final-year engineering undergraduates designed a project around teaching the application of maths to A level maths pupils at a local state secondary school. Based on a weekly Wednesday afternoon tutoring session in the classroom, over a period of five months, the pupils’ quickly grew to understand the complex mathematical techniques they were learning, and they were able to achieve a higher grade than first predicted.

Over the following 38 years, the scheme has grown from just four engineering students in one school to more than 100 cross-STEM undergraduates at Imperial visiting around 25 local state primary and secondary schools in London. Combining this with e-mentoring and other opportunities has proven to be an incredibly effective way to boost pupils’ academic ability and to also provide them with a role-model for higher education, should they chose to follow that route post A level.

It is important to understand that “soft” mentoring can begin as early as year 1 or 2 and as such, primary pupils should not be overlooked. Clearly e-mentoring would not be suitable or advisable but face-to-face mentoring and classroom support from an undergraduate or business professional can have a huge impact on young minds. 

Anecdotal evidence would seem to suggest that it can also increase their academic ability and choices long-term. Again, if a pupil comes from a family with no experience in a certain industry, and no friends to offer guidance, being exposed to someone independent who has followed this path and can talk about how they got there can be invaluable in making this industry seem within the pupil’s reach. 

Alongside teacher support, ensuring that the pupils’ parents or guardians are on side is also of critical importance. All too often, a pupil can fall behind or lose interest in their academic attainment because of a situation in their home environment. This of course is harder to manage but schools might be able to address this carefully through parent mail, interventions and/or support networks within the local community. 

Schools play a vital role in their community and as such, can have a very valuable input into helping pupils achieve their very best. It should be talent and aptitude, not background and connections, that determine a pupil’s further education and career choices and prospects, and there are lots of ways to ensure that this is the case. 

  • Annalisa Alexander is head of outreach at Imperial College London.

Further information
For more on Brightside’s mentoring work, visit and to read a recent SecEd article by Dr Tessa Stone, chief executive of Brightside, go to

CAPTION: Aiming high: Brightside mentees meet their mentors at The Big Deal enterprise competition event at the University of York


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