Lessons in life from the veterans mentoring in Lancashire's schools

Adam Lewis spent 16 years in the military and now helps other ex-forces personnel plan for civilian life
Adam Lewis spent 16 years in the military and now helps other ex-forces personnel plan for civilian life

The first time former marine Greg greeted a pupil who had been referred to him for mentoring, he found that the pair had something in common – both were a little unsure about the situation in which they found themselves.

“If you’re in school and are asked to go to a room with an ex-Royal Marine, it’s going to be something that you’re a bit wary of,” laughs Greg, who wanted to give only his first name.

“When I arrived here, I thought it was going to be a bit too soft and fluffy for me – but really it’s the complete opposite. Once you get into it, you start learning how complex we are as human beings.

“Like adults, each kid has their own individual issues – some more challenging than others.”

Greg is coming to the end of a 12-month stint as a mentor at Holy Cross Roman Catholic High School in Chorley, where he has been supporting pupils whose diverse struggles have the potential to derail their academic progress. The Lancashire County Council scheme, which places a dozen veterans a year in schools across the county, is now seeking new recruits for the next academic year.

Greg's role involves meeting young people in a series of one-to-one sessions – but it is the teenagers who do most of the talking.

“It’s about listening to them and then asking questions which make them reassess the decisions they might have made,” Greg explains.

“I do give advice if I can see they actively need some guidance. But the majority of the time, I give them the opportunity to work out for themselves how they can move forward.

“If they are stuck in a period of time where they’re unhappy in school or something has happened at home, I help them put strategies in place to achieve what they are capable of.

“Eventually, they start to see the bigger picture and realise they have got the ability to change everything around them if they are willing to put the work in,” he adds.

The work which Greg himself put in during his time in the marines provides a near-guarantee of respect from the pupils – almost all of them male – whom he helps. But as a former member of the revered amphibious force – famed for its tough training regime – he is not surprised when some of the young people he meets are “stand-offish”with him.

“When they first walk in, there’s this massive gulf between soldier and pupil. Breaking that down is really simple, because I just ask them if they’ve got any questions – and they’ll usually ask what I’ve done, where I’ve been and whether it was hard. That helps build up a rapport.”

A particular strength of the mentoring scheme, according to the man who oversees it, is that pupils are not forced to take part – and the mentors themselves are not judged by traditional academic measures.

“The process is elective, so there’s no disciplinary element to it and that makes it more attractive to young people – everybody is viewed on their own merits,” explains Adam Lewis, employment officer at Lancashire County Council.

“We work on pupils’ attendance, inclusion in school and academic progression – but we are not responsible for that, we’re just a tool which the school can access. And if there has been a breakdown in the relationship between a pupil and a teacher, an independent person can help mitigate that.

“But there is a referral process in place and it all goes through the head of year – because kids will be kids and if they want to get out of a lesson, they will try to go and see the mentor,” Adam laughs.

It is the ability of 32-year-old Greg to recall his own mischief-making days which helps him get under the skin of the youngsters he now mentors.

“I wasn’t too bad at school – not the best, but far from the worst,” Greg smiles.

“It helps when you have a good sense of humour and you can say to these kids: ‘I used to do that – I know exactly why you did it and why you thought it was funny’. But now as an adult, you can ask if they understand why they are in trouble for doing whatever it may be.”

While the transition from mess room back to classroom has been a smooth one for Greg, it was not one which he originally intended to make when his time in the Royal Marines came to an end.

With a forces CV which ranges from working with nuclear weapons in Scotland to providing hurricane relief in the British Virgin Islands, he had hoped he might be one of the lucky veterans who “ends up in a £50,000 job somewhere”.

But while the Lancashire County Council-funded mentoring programme might offer slightly more modest remuneration, Greg says it has its own rewards in seeing the difference his work can make.

“There was one lad who just wasn’t playing ball and wasn’t interested [in school]. He wasn’t a bad lad, he just used to mess around a bit and had massive trust issues.

“I ended up working with him for almost the entire year – and he’s done really well, changed his behaviour and both his grades and attendance have gone up. He’s flourished into a young man from a child.

“I get a lot of pupils who end up coming to me through the word of mouth of others – that’s when you realise you’re having an effect.

“And when a young man shakes your hand and says, ‘Thanks, Sir’ – and you never hear his name mentioned [negatively] again – you know you’ve pressed all the right buttons and got someone to where they need to be at this stage in their life.

“It’s a good feeling to know you’ve helped someone.”

A talent for serving others which Greg has carried from one career to the next.

‘WE HAVE SERVED GLOBALLY, NOW WE’RE SERVING LOCALLY’

According to the man who co-ordinates Lancashire County Council’s school mentoring programme, the former military personnel who deliver it benefit as much as the pupils who receive their support.

Employment officer Adam Lewis, himself a veteran with 16 years’ full-time and reserve experience, says the scheme provides the space which veterans need as they move back into civilian life.

“It’s a stepping stone which provides people from the military with the opportunity to retrain, gain new skills and, importantly, gives them a moment to stop and think about what their next step is going to be.

“We capitalise on the skills which our mentors have, like the ability to be reactive in a dynamic environment – because that’s what schools are. The self-confidence you get from military service, as well as the ability to make decisions and be responsible for them, are perfect for the mentoring role.

“So instead of treading water when you come out of the forces, wondering what you’re going to do, you can be doing something productive with that time,” Adam says.

The programme is currently recruiting its next intake of veterans from within the county council area for September. Ranks from lieutenant colonel to private soldier have so far passed through the course and received official mentoring and mental health first aid qualifications in the process.

Several former mentors have been kept on in the schools which have hosted them for their 12-month placement – one even retrained as a teacher.

Greg, who has spent the last year mentoring at Holy Cross Roman Catholic High School in Chorley, has been offered a 12-month contract to continue his role and also become a classroom supervisor.

“The school has been fantastic – they’ve embraced the programme whole-heartedly and every member of staff has valued what I’ve been doing,” Greg reflects.

Wherever possible, mentors are placed in schools close to where they grew up.

“We find they better understand the issues that affect their own communities – and those issues are not always the same across the county,” Adam explains.

“It also means the mentors have a vested interest, because they are having an impact on a very local level where they live.

“We’ve all given of our service in a global sense, but this is something we can give back in a much more intimate sense.”

GOING FOR GOLD

The school military mentoring programme is one service which helped Lancashire County Council achieve a silver award as part of the government’s Defence Employer Recognition Scheme (DERS).

That accolade came in 2016 and is handed to organisations which have shown their support for the armed forces community. Since then, the authority has made its mentoring programme an on-going commitment, having originally intended for it to run over the course of five years.

County Hall is now attempting to secure gold status under the DERS. The council will need to demonstrate that it encourages applications from former service personnel and current members of the reserves – and fully supports them once they are working at the authority.

At a recent cabinet meeting where the proposal to seek a gold award in 2020 was approved, council leader Geoff Driver predicted the initiative would attract cross-party support.

“The previous administration signed the armed forces covenant in 2013 and the council has entered into various commitments as part of that covenant.

“We will be looking to employ more ex-service personnel and we will hopefully be learning from them, because… they bring with them skills that aren’t readily available within the county council,” County Cllr Driver said.

IN NUMBERS

40 – number of Lancashire schools which have hosted an ex-forces mentor

70 – number of mentors who have passed through the programme

2,100 – number of pupils who have received mentoring support

*Figures cover 2013/14-2018/19 academic years