Mentoring in the spotlight
[This article was published en French, translated in English by EPALE France].
What is the current state of mentoring?
While the Covid-19 crisis has spared no one, its impacts on young people are have been severe, and on many levels: health, interrupted studies, internships and jobs that are impossible to access or postponed indefinitely, increased social injustice, unpredictability and doubts about choices for the future, etc. These difficulties, although they were already present, have been amplified, particularly for those who do not have the material resources or networks to cope with the situation.
Major measures are currently being deployed to deal with these situations and to reduce their impact as far as possible, particularly in the context of the “1 young person, 1 solution” plan. The question of equal opportunities is once again a very important one. The state wishes to go further and significantly develop voluntary work to promote the educational and professional success of young people. The initiative was announced on 1 March 2021 and is called “1 jeune, 1 mentor” (1 young person, 1 mentor). From April onwards, we will be offering a mentoring service for young people. Beginning in 2021, 100,000 young people will receive support from adult volunteers to help them on their career path. The State has thus committed to mobilising €30 million this year to support associations involved in mentoring. The government is also pursuing the development of the “1 young person, 1 solution” platform which already lists 100,000 job offers. In the coming weeks, a financial aid simulator will be integrated into the website to provide information about the schemes that can provide help. This is in addition to the reception and support work carried out by the network of Mission Locale youth centres.
The situation of young people is concerning. This can be seen in the current debates on the allocation of the youth RSA welfare benefit to help young people in difficulty. It can also be seen in the actions of many organisations: public authorities, the network of Mission Locale youth centres which has been developing sponsorship for several decades and which is at the heart of the "1 young person, 1 solution" scheme, associations and companies which are heavily involved. Regarding mentoring, a collective of associations was created, as the Covid period has increased the needs and mobilisation of new mentors. This is part of a desire for quantitative development, but also for legibility and seriousness. Indeed, mentoring, while voluntary and unpaid, is nevertheless a relationship that requires a framework and conditions of clarity and relevance.
Mentoring: what is it?
In concrete terms, it involves young people benefiting from the support of a of a "mentor". A mentor supports young people, sometimes from the beginning of secondary school, devoting one or two hours a month to them. But given the wide use of the term, what are we really talking about here?
The Mentoring Collective proposes the following definition: Mentoring refers to an interpersonal relationship of support, a voluntary, in-depth, medium to long-term relationship based on mutual learning. Its aim is to promote the autonomy and development of the person being supported by setting objectives that evolve and adapt according to specific needs. The partnership acts within a professional structure (training, monitoring, evaluation, etc.).
Its origins can be found in Homer's Odyssey: Mentor was entrusted by Odysseus with the education of his son Telemachus during his absence in the Trojan War. Many semantic debates have taken place since the emergence of the term in France. Although it is widely used in Quebec and in English-speaking countries, it has been less common in France where the generic term "accompagnement” is used, as well as the more specific terms "parrainage" or "coaching". Without getting into semantic debates, mentoring can be described in terms of the following characteristics:
- An interpersonal relationship of support, help, exchange and mutual learning
- A voluntary approach
- Support from an experienced person who provides wisdom, a network and support (making a differentiation from peer support)
- The mentor sees the person as having potential and seeks to foster their development. They aim to facilitate the person's active involvement
- The relationship is unconditional and the person being supported does not have to justify anything that they have not managed to achieve
- Their participation is not limited to giving advice, but involves establishing a relationship of trust based on consideration of the other and the implementation of their own solutions
- The mentor can be an inspiration in their own right through their experience.
- Objectives are developed together according to the situation and priorities of the person being supported.
It is therefore not a form of course or individual training, nor is it consultancy. It is first of all an encounter and the construction of a co-learning relationship. Furthermore, the notion of an experienced person needs to be clarified. It does not necessarily have anything to do with the age of the person. Young mentors are now involved in many support schemes in which they contribute their experience.
An equal opportunities issue
This approach is part of the fight against both social and territorial inequalities, but also aims to fight against the self-limitation of choices for young people who do not have all the networks to support them. It is also a question of jointly reducing the complexity of the social and educational system and enabling them to both decode it and use it to serve their own progress. More broadly, it involves the commitment of all, and a more united society that can be found through the contribution of mentoring.
Obviously, the development of mentoring does not absolve us from a socio-economic analysis of the development of social inequalities and the ways of reducing them. All initiatives that can lead to greater social equity and allow everyone to live a life that is valuable to them are important to use. But this raises some questions.
What are the prospects?
Mentoring is a relationship. Processes of influence are also at play, especially as with the vulnerabilities generated by the current situation. However, mentoring is not just a matter of relational quality or simple goodwill (although these are essential) but also of know-how developed through experience. Although the mentor gives their time, they do so both in the service of intergenerational solidarity and within a precise framework with limits. It is not about morals or prescriptive advice. This is a long-standing debate in the field of volunteering. In certain sensitive activities, professionals have know-how that is difficult to replace. This requires that mentors are clear about the issues and limits of their contribution. The work carried out by the mentoring collective and all the actors involved over the years, as well as the framework set by the state, are in line with this clear positioning. There are many resources available to potential and active mentors.
Guidance is also a profession that requires the mastery of specific professionalism in situations that can be delicate. And professionalism also implies responsibility.
In addition, as this announcement on the development of mentoring was being made, the UN released its first ever report on ageism on 17 March 2021. The Covid-19 crisis has also generated clear intergenerational tensions. “Older people have often been seen as uniformly frail and vulnerable, while younger people are portrayed as invincible, or reckless and irresponsible,” it says. “...people of all ages will continue to face different forms of ageism, and we will need to combat ageism during and after the crisis if we are to ensure the health, well-being and dignity of people everywhere”.
According to the authors, in order to combat age discrimination “priority should be given to: the adoption of policies and legislation, and the implementation of educational and intergenerational interventions.”
In this light, mentoring can be a very relevant modality provided that the idea of mutual learning is integrated and developed: young people also have a lot to teach their mentors. In this relationship, as a reciprocal exchange, a peaceful way of living together can be built. It serves the factors that are common to us, that we wish to protect and that do not exclude any legitimate debates and tensions. We don't necessarily have to give lessons to young people, but we need to listen to them and learn from them.