As we find ourselves at the end of another party conference season in the UK, education has once again been grabbing the headlines. Education secretary Michael Gove has continued his case for free schools; last week, Ed Miliband called for a reduced cap on tuition fees; and before that, Nick Clegg spoke of pumping £2.5 billion into the Pupil Premium - a Government funding programme targeted towards disadvantaged children. While there is much political debate about how to achieve the objective of making education more accessible, we must not be sidetracked from the most important issue: the quality and purpose of education.
The riots on our streets this summer showed us the importance of engaging with the youth of our country and the education system represents an ideal opportunity to do so at an early stage.
For many people, what we witnessed during the riots was particularly disturbing because of the chilling nihilism displayed by many of those taking part. But how do you go about connecting with those whose world view values a new pair of trainers above a potential prison sentence? This view ultimately leads to self-destruction and a massive loss of potential in large swathes of young people.
I believe the answer to this problem lies in engaging with our young people. Despite its shortcomings, we have a fantastic education system in this country, from which I, like many others, have benefitted. Unfortunately, many children, especially those from a minority background, fail to engage in education due to family background or the stigma attached to learning. To compound the problem of educational isolation, teenagers already doubtful of its benefits are seeing individuals reaping short-term rewards from some quite dubious practices. If honest hard work is no longer the way to be rewarded, why should they bother?
To try and counter this problem, I have been working with one of HRH The Prince of Wales' charities, Mosaic. We send a wide range of professionals and entrepreneurs into schools across the country to mentor children during term time. Crucially, many of our mentors come from similar backgrounds to their mentees. The teachers in these schools are doing fantastic jobs, but outside of school the pupils too often do not have the benefit of a network of support from professional adults. The teachers are doing their bit to raise these young people's educational achievements, but the mentors are there to raise their aspirations; offering them a glimpse of a world they would otherwise not see, let alone appreciate.
In the business world, professional mentoring and coaching is increasingly being used to raise the performance of employees at all levels. Its core benefit is raising self-awareness; an attribute that is often overlooked but which both contemporary psychologists and ancient philosophers have assessed as being an essential ingredient for self-development. I have witnessed these mentors at work in schools and heard first-hand accounts from pupils about the hugely beneficial impact it has had across many areas of their lives.
By having access to someone who will take time to listen to their concerns and frustrations and working with them to overcome these, pupils begin to feel empowered and, coupled with the increased self-awareness, inspired to realise their potential.
Despite its benefits, too many professionals I encounter are sceptical about taking time from their busy schedules to mentor. As an investor in companies that need high quality employees to function, I see the value of investing in human beings every single day. I see a direct relationship between mentoring pupils today and having the level of talent our economy needs tomorrow to fund a healthy, competitive society with plenty of opportunities in which businesses can thrive.
As stated, we must not lose sight of the goal of trying to raise the quality of education and understand its purpose in times of immense social pressure. Mentoring can not only improve the quality of a child's education but help achieve its purpose of inspiring them to succeed and raise their own living standards, thereby making a positive contribution to society.
Aside from such long-term goals, one of the most rewarding things from a personal point of view is the great pleasure I take from seeing a child who is awakened to a new sense of purpose. In these difficult economic times, mentoring pupils is definitely one investment with a worthy Return On Investment.
For more information please visit: www.mosaicnetwork.co.uk