Bishop, Jo (2017) Removing barriers to learning or picking up the pieces? An Ethnography of the Learning Mentor in a performance-based culture. Post-Doctoral thesis, The University of Huddersfield.

This doctoral study examines the everyday experiences of the Learning Mentor, a support role introduced into English state schools fifteen years ago. It was conceived as part of a broader New Labour policy agenda which sought to resolve the relationship between ‘risk’ and ‘social exclusion’ as the root cause of many social problems. According to the official narrative, Learning Mentors were part of a wider initiative to ‘eliminate and never excuse’ underachievement in the most deprived parts of England. Their primary task of ‘removing barriers to learning’ was premised on the notion of offering a different type of pupil-support from that which already existed in schools, being described in official accounts as a “professional friend” and “challenger of assumptions”. The role can also be understood as part of a transformative agenda which elevated ‘low level’ workers to paraprofessional status across a range of public services. The thesis is premised on two key areas: first, how this type of occupational domain has been historically constructed and continues to evolve through policy transformations which are enacted at the local level. Second, how the work activities and practices associated with these and other school support workers, expose issues around ‘structure’ and ‘agency’. The methodological approach was informed by Institutional Ethnography in that in order to establish how the work of Learning Mentors was practised, viewed and understood within the school, the researcher undertook to gather and document the work knowledges of several groups: firstly the mentors themselves, followed by children and young people as pupils; teaching and support staff, and middle and senior managers. In tracing the genealogy of Learning Mentor practice, attention was also paid to the legacy of an earlier educational paraprofessional emerging in the 1960s and termed the ‘community agent’; along with a burgeoning youth mentoring movement from the late 1980s – developments which both took place in the United States of America. The problematic of the study which became apparent was that although warmly received by pupils, Learning Mentor practices were marginalised, misunderstood and relatively unseen; casting doubt on the role’s level of influence suggested by formal prescriptions. Furthermore, despite the support systems in which they worked being formally presented as coherent and straightforward entities, they were in fact found to be ‘messy’ and contested spaces which were inhabited by different groups of practitioners, whose differing identities informed and underpinned their own respective practices.

Final thesis - BISHOP.PDF - Accepted Version

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