Mentoring & Motivation

 Reflecting the wide diversity of education work our members do within the community Dave Crossan reports on the pleasures of creating new opportunities for the over fifties.

You know that you must have got something right when at the end of a twelve month Healthy Lifestyles course for the Over 50’s, clients come up and say "How can we keep this up?  We don’t want to stop now".  It became apparent that something was meant to happen.  We were approached by a national organisation to say they had been funded by the Department of Education and Skills to provide pilot projects for the Over 50’s to develop their own work.


So began the Over Fifties for Action (OFFA) Mentoring Project in Coventry.  The people from the Healthy Lifestyles group were determined to continue and to spread their message to others and the DFES actually wanted to help pay for the work.  They would provide course materials through the Community Education Development Centre (CEDC) and accreditation through the Open College Network if the group were willing to pilot the project.  This was part of a national project funded by DFES with partner organisations in Birmingham, Leicester and North Tyneside coordinated by the CEDC.  In return the group received tuition from the Adult Education Service, support from CEDC and funding for their particular activities.


The Adult Education Service facilitated a monthly meeting to work through the Mentoring Course that CEDC were developing.  This gave people the chance to look at questions about how and where people learn, resources, health and safety, equal opportunities, and funding issues.  Some of the Mentor’s felt that much of this was "common sense", but it soon became obvious that what was common sense to one person would never be considered by another.


Adult Education tutors were also available to support the Mentor’s when the running of the activities became fraught.  They encouraged them to discuss the difficulty and to see that frequently things did not always run smoothly just because something was a good idea.  Thus dealing with adversity and accepting the challenges that accompany working with people became part of the learning experience.


Building on our contacts through the Healthy Lifestyles Group and a short article in the local press a group of 10 interested Over Fifties met in the reception area of a local hotel to see how they could use the scheme.  The Adult Education Tutor explained that the process was about volunteering and building on peoples’ experience to help them to develop activities and encourage other people from the age group to become involved in anything that interested them.  Through a process of Mentoring - people would become increasingly in charge of their own learning, and the word learning could be used in its broadest context, allowing them to gain ownership of and control over the process.


Some members of the group quickly identified a cohort that they wished to work with to try out the Mentoring techniques, other individuals took longer, and as befits this work, a diverse range of activities, methods of delivery and places of learning were soon being employed.


From the outset we had two distinct Irish Language classes.  They were very insistent that it was Irish Language they wanted to learn, a living language that some of them had spoken back home as youngsters. It was a language based on their culture, their memories and their ability to enjoy Irish television programmes.  For some this had the additional benefit of providing an arena for reminiscence and this is an area of work that needs further development.  One class takes place during the day and is essentially for the older age group.  The other group meets in the evening in a Catholic Church Club and splits into beginners and improvers – but come together for the last half hour – frequently stretching to an extra hour – for a period of poetry and song.  The laughter that accompanies this session really lets you know that there is plenty of fun left in learning.


The groups are encouraged to seek accreditation through the Open College Network in recognition of their achievement, but there is no compulsion towards gaining a qualification if an individual feels that this would inhibit their purpose and process of learning.


One of the original members of the Healthy Lifestyles group was determined to maintain the increased fitness he had attained and the subsequent enhanced zest for life.  He felt the need to take this back to his own community and quickly established a small group meeting once a week in a local Community Centre.


Using contacts he had made during the previous year he arranged for a fitness trainer with specialist qualifications for working with the Over 50’s to lead the group.  Although the mandatory leaflet drops were carried out, as usual word of mouth and actively seeking out individuals within the Community proved to be the most effective form of recruitment. 


At this stage Age Concern became involved and agreed to part fund the project by paying for the venue.  This helped to establish sustainability and this was established when the project was taken into the main stream of Adult Education activities.  The group is now growing in strength, and for an area that was barren of all adult education this represents a real step forward.  Some of the group have now started to attend a second fitness session outside of their immediate neighbourhood.  We felt that a real breakthrough had been achieved when our first man joined the group after a neighbour recommended the course, stressing that it was very sociable and good fun.


Another group of women set up a truly innovative photography project.  Combining with Coventry’s WOWW (What Older Women Want) group and Warwick University Arts Centre, they came from all areas of the City to work with a professional photographer.  They decided that they wanted to build a black and white film portfolio that reflected their view of the City, and their environment.


Having shot their individual films, the group discussed their images and collectively decided which photographs were most evocative.


These were then enlarged and became an exhibition that toured the City to great acclaim.  The group also found that their achievement could qualify them for a national qualification through the Open College Network.  Although this had never been an explicit objective of the activity – this award reconfirmed the recognition of their achievement.


The successful outcome of the project encouraged the women to combine with Warwick University to produce a piece of performance art to compliment the work of Eleanor Antin, who was having a major exhibition at the University.


Picking up on Antin’s surreal humour, the group chose images that they wanted to express their feelings about the West Midlands.  These were transposed to postcards and each member was given a set to send out to other members of the public, as well as local and national politicians, to involve them in the work.


No Over 50’s group would be complete without its Silver Surfer, and naturally one of the Mentors was anxious to maintain and develop his own skills by helping others to overcome their reticence about Computers and become confident and competent in their use.  With the support of the Adult Education Service, he was able to offer simple introductory courses for up to ten people lasting two hours a week for twelve weeks.  The supply of learners is never ending and the demand so great, that we are now into our seventh course in just one centre.  Many of these learners have progressed on to higher qualifications including E mail and Internet skills, and each step forward seems to only make them more determined to develop new interests.  The new groups are now taking thirty-week courses from the start.


Equally enthusiastic were the group who signed on for an Over 50’s Salsa Dancing class.  On this occasion the Mentor learned very quickly about the frustrations of finding a suitable venue, available at the appropriate time and with a qualified Tutor.  The Mentors unstinting perseverance finally brought everything together and a very successful group was set up working with a very youthful Tutor aged over seventy.


After a ten-week trial people wished to continue, the lack of male participants was overcome by establishing a Latin-in-Line class.  When an article appeared in the local newspaper our switchboard was overloaded as more then eighty calls for further information were received on one morning.  Eventually three new classes were established.


So what have we gained from these activities?  Well at least half the original Mentors have attained the level required for an OCN qualification.


But this is only a collateral outcome.  Essentially people have been given the opportunity to identify learning needs within their community, and use their skill to present opportunities for learning.  Over two hundred people have been drawn into new learning opportunities, and through the Adult Education Service many of these can be made sustainable and obtainable for other groups.


The Adult Service has also benefited by being able to network with voluntary and other agencies such as Age Concern, and the Health Authority to maintain activities.  For example the Health agenda and the maintenance of an independent lifestyle can be embraced by Latin-in-Line Dancers, who are drawn from a wide cohort of people who would never consider entering a gymnasium.


Overall the scheme has been a great success both for the Mentors and for their clients.  The Over 50’s have shown that there is still a lot of enjoyment to be gained from learning and that this leads to increased confidence and independence, as well as providing an ambience that is both sociable and self-perpetuating.  It is to be hoped that other Mentoring groups can establish themselves, and we have just had an enquiry regarding setting up a National Distance Learning Mentoring project for women. 

More to follow? – who knows?  Especially as it is all based on volunteers being Mentors to develop provision.



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