Mentorship programme aims to arrest ‘tide of inequality’

An Australian-based mentorship programme which facilitates the mentoring of disadvantaged high school pupils by university students aims to improve the life chances of young people through education, and stem inequality “before it takes deeper root”.

“We know that education is the most powerful weapon in the world (in terms of tackling society’s inequalities), as the late Nelson Mandela espoused; and by building bridges between the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless, between university students and disadvantaged high school kids, we stand a chance of arresting the tide of inequality,” said Jack Manning Bancroft, CEO of an Australian social justice organisation, AIME, at a function at the University of Pretoria, where his project was recently launched.

AIME (previously known as the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience) was started by Manning Bancroft as a student in Sydney 14 years ago, using university students to mentor indigenous high school pupils to complete school or to enter university or some form of training and employment, thereby improving their life chances.

Proven model

He has now brought this concept to South Africa and Uganda and intends working with universities around the world “using a 14-year-old proven model to fight inequality before it takes deeper root”. Manning Bancroft is targeting historically disadvantaged or marginalised high school pupils.

The University of Pretoria is the first institution in the country to work with AIME, which is identifying student mentors who will work with historically disadvantaged schools in the township of Mamelodi. Manning Bancroft said the project will start with 100 to 200 historically disadvantaged learners and the content will be adapted for local use.

The son of an Aboriginal mother and a white father, Manning Bancroft said as a student he felt he needed to do something to uplift the lives of young indigenous people. His idea emanated from his utilising 25 university students to mentor 25 indigenous children at a high school in Redfern, Sydney. Fourteen years later, AIME has 25,000 graduates, 7,000 mentors and 10,000 mentees in Australia (of which 75% are expected to enter university, or some form of training or employment), operating on 40 university campuses.

Historically, indigenous Australians suffered atrocities for years, resulting in a socio-economic chasm between them and non-indigenous Australians. While the Australian government has made efforts to narrow this gap, a report by Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia in 2015 revealed that indigenous pupils were falling behind their non-indigenous counterparts, in areas including academic results, attendance and school retention rates.

Closing the educational gap

Said Manning Bancroft: “Historical data in Australia shows 40% of indigenous people aged 18 to 25 are in university, employment or training. The non-indigenous average is 75% for the same cohort. AIME students have achieved between 73% and 78% for the last six and more years. We’ve closed the educational gap.”

Independent research has verified this programme, which sends its graduates into the world on an equal footing with the rest of the population.

Describing AIME is a metaphorical bridge between high school pupils and university students, Manning Bancroft said the bridge has two lanes: “The first lane carries buses of students from high schools to the university for programme days. On any of these days, there are three one-hour modules: AIME TV, an activity block and failure time.”

AIME TV is a collection of videos of mentors telling their stories from across the globe. “They look like Ted Talks (influential videos from expert speakers on education, business, science, technology and creativity) meets Sesame Street (a children’s educational series) meets MTV. Thereafter, we roll into an activity block that allows the mentors to work with the mentees and digest the key messages of the TV interview,” said Manning Bancroft.

Failure time involves mentors teaching pupils that failure is a part of life and is inextricably linked to learning. It entails pupils doing group work where they fail together. “In this process we destroy the stigma of shame and its power to hold us back,” he said.

AIME runs the programme for pupils aged 12 to 18, and during this time, they would each have completed over 45 individual sessions on the campus over six years, “navigating a university campus and truly demystifying university as an option”.

The second lane of the AIME bridge simultaneously carries carloads of student mentors from a university to a high school to engage in a series of one-hour sessions called Tutor Squads, where mentees and mentors work in small groups through homework, assignments and subject-specific quizzes.

Stronger futures

“For the kids, the programme changes their lives. They come to us with low expectations for their future, many not wanting to finish high school. They leave, having increased their self-esteem and self-worth and with greater confidence. They are hungry to complete their education and step into significantly stronger futures,” he said.

AIME also helps to place the pupils in university, training or employment on completion of their schooling.

For Manning Bancroft, education is “the one control risk factor that overcomes disadvantage. If every university built a mentoring structure, this will close the gap in social inequality”.

He said civil rights activists like Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King did their bit to bring about change. “Now university students can stand up as mentors and 40 years later say we helped contribute to an education revolution. In return mentors acquire leadership skills and have an opportunity to leave a legacy.”

Participating universities pay AIME a fee, while the organisation relies on donor funding for survival and funds from the sale of its branded clothing. Student mentors volunteer their time.

According to University of Pretoria Vice Principal (Academic) Professor Norman Duncan, by partnering with AIME the university will be able to assist in providing its students with an additional platform from which to offer a service to local communities. “Social responsiveness is becoming an increasingly important aspect of our students’ education,” he said.

Furthermore, the university is also able to make a meaningful contribution to broadening the pool of students from disadvantaged communities who can obtain access to higher education, he said.