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Informal educators or just ‘additional adults’?: examining the role of adult volunteers within youth physical activity programmes

R.A. Sandford1, K.M. Armour1 & D. Crossman2

1 Loughborough University, UK; 2 The Royal Docks Community School, UK

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Glamorgan, 14-17 September 2005


This paper provides an overview of the literature relating to informal education and youth mentoring, and reports data from the evaluation of two projects that are using adult volunteers to enhance young people’s learning and development within physical activity settings. The paper reports data from observations, interviews and reflective journals to analyse the expectations and experiences of the mentors and the young people being mentored. Data suggest that there are potential benefits for all participants in the mentoring process, but also highlight some significant issues for consideration. For example: mentors had unrealistic expectations of the young people and of their ability to provide effective support; there was a lack of clarity about the precise role of the mentors, particularly in relation to their status as educators or simply ‘additional adults’; and there were limited opportunities for mentors to establish sustained relationships with the young people in their groups. In conclusion, it is argued that physical activity settings do provide powerful contexts for informal education, but that careful project planning and mentor preparation are required (Roberts, 2000). Moreover, mentors need a clearer understanding of the informal education process, so that in their relationships with young people they maximise the learning opportunities.


This paper is concerned with exploring the issue of informal education and mentoring, in relation to the experiences of adult volunteers involved in two corporate-sponsored youth physical activity programmes. Although by no means a new idea, the concept of ‘Informal Education’ has gained significant currency in recent years, associated with a growing recognition of learning as a fluid, adaptable and collaborative process (Jeffs, 2001). Informal education has long been in the shadow of formal education, being seen, perhaps, as a recreational, less academic, and ill-defined approach to learning. In this respect it has something in common with the subject of physical education, which has, at times, been seen as something of a ‘minor profession’ lacking significant cultural capital within the curriculum (Lawson, 1990; Burt, 1998). Indeed, physical education as a discipline has, at times, laid some claim to undertaking an informal education approach, citing itself as being a suitable forum for the promotion, discussion and learning of appropriate morals, values and behaviours. There is certainly support for the notion that physical education is a highly appropriate context for the promotion of socio-moral development (Miller et al, 1997) and personal and corporate responsibility (Wild, 2002). Indeed, the National Curriculum for Physical Education (England) (DfEE/QCA, 1999) states that physical education provides opportunities to promote spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

The fields of sport, physical education and health education are also seen by some to have great potential to address a number of social problems in contemporary society, such as poor health, depression, violence, crime and general well-being (e.g. Burt, 1998; Lawson, 1997; Hellison et al, 2000, Robertson, 2000). Pitter and Andrews (1997) believe that the notion of physical activity as a means to address these areas of difficulty has generated something of a ‘social problems industry’ (p.85), in which a growing number of programmes aimed at promoting social and moral development are being created for disaffected or disadvantaged young people. Heeding the call that ‘young people do not develop in social, cultural, political and economic vacuums’ (Lawson, 1997 p.19) and that multi-agency approaches are needed to address complex social issues (Lawson, 1995, Steer, 2000), an increasing number of corporate organisations are beginning to provide support for such initiatives, in recognition of their social responsibilities.

Alongside the improving status of informal education, and the growth of programmes intended to promote social and moral development through physical activity, there has been a corresponding increase in the use of additional, non-teacher adults as learning and personal support strategies in many different areas of education (Garvey & Alred, 2000; Colley, 2003b). Several studies have shown that having a relationship with an adult other than a parent can lead to more positive outcomes for disaffected young people (Rhodes et al, 1992; Bennetts, 2003) and that these connections can ‘powerfully influence the course and quality of adolescents’ lives’ (Rhodes, 2001 p.1). As Reid (2002) notes:

‘Most young people will ‘look up to’ and admire someone who is empathetic, non-judgemental and who understands and listens to you. Studies have shown that young people who have a significant adult or ‘mentor’ in their life, other than family members, are more likely to achieve in a variety of ways, including socially and academically’ (p.154).

This paper now goes on to look in more detail at some of the issues outlined above, beginning with an overview of the literature relating to the issues of mentoring and informal education.

Overview of Informal Education Literature

In their book entitled ‘The Principles and Practice of Informal Education’ (2001) Richardson and Wolfe wrote that informal education is about learning through life, and that practitioners work with individuals and groups in the community to promote their learning. While this gives a broad explanation of the context it is somewhat simplistic and doesn’t give a clear idea of how informal education works in practice. The book, like most written on this subject, is an edited collection of articles written by practitioners in the field, and while this gives an interesting overview of the work it does little to promote or clarify the status and purpose of a profession that is often seen as the poor relation to formal education and schooling (Jeffs & Smith 1987). This lack of clarity is not surprising, as in truth informal education is not easy to define. While it can be as simple as learning from life, there are core values and concepts that underpin the practice that need further exploration. Indeed, the Y.M.C.A. George Williams College, a leading provider of informal education training, draws on the theories of educational thinkers such as Dewey (1939) on learning from experience, Friere (1972) on emancipatory education, Rogers & Freiberg (1983) on person-centred learning and Schön (1982) on reflective practice, as a theoretical base of their professional qualifying course.

So how does this translate into practice? Informal educators work in a wide range of professions and educational contexts. They make use of everyday situations to create environments where learning can take place (Crosby 2001). Their work is purposeful with the intent to foster learning rather than assuming it will happen by chance. At the heart of practice is interaction and conversation (Jeffs & Smith 1999). These concepts underpin an educational process that attempts to draw out learning based on participants’ own experience and beliefs (Doyle 2001). This distinguishes it from much formal education, most of which is curriculum driven and tends to focus on outcomes (Smith 2002, 2004).

A useful example of informal education in practice can be found in the projects outlined below, i.e. adult mentors working with young people in activity settings. By making use of the situation and environment, and through their interactions and conversations, the mentors can encourage the young people to reflect upon their experiences, developing their learning about themselves and their role within the group. This in turn generates self-awareness and skills that can be transferred into other areas of their lives. Because informal education is a model of educational practice, as well as a professional role, it is often used by people who would call themselves something different, e.g. mentor or team escort. The current challenge for the profession is to raise the profile of this way of working and to increase its recognition and status on the educational agenda.

Overview of Mentoring Literature

Over the last few years, youth mentoring has undergone a ‘spectacular expansion’ (Colley, 2003c p.1) across a diverse number of professional organisations and disciplines, including within the field of education (Garvey & Alred, 2000; Philip, 1997, 2003; Mee Lee & Bush, 2003). There has also been a proliferation of the literature regarding mentoring, with authors highlighting a drive to encourage people to take up mentoring roles with young people in a number of countries, including North America, the UK, and Australia (Lucas, 2001; Miller, 2002; Reid, 2002; Colley, 2003a; Philip et al, 2004). Within the UK, as with other countries, many of the current youth mentoring initiatives are being generated as part of a government drive to tackle the perceived problems of youth disaffection and social exclusion (Reid, 2002; Colley, 2003a, 2003b; Philip et al, 2004; Shiner et al, 2004). The goals of such programmes, often termed ‘engagement mentoring’ (Colley, 2003b), have been identified as including increasing academic success, lowering deviant behaviour, increasing self-esteem and improving employability (Lucas, 2001; Colley, 2003a; Philip, 2003; Ellis, 2003). However, as a response to the contemporary concern for the welfare and social development of young people, the use of mentors or adult volunteers has also been seen as a means of promoting smooth, socially acceptable transitions to adulthood (Colley, 2002a; Philip, 2003; DuBois & Karcher, 2005).

The concept of mentoring is not itself new. However, modern mentoring schemes do represent something of a new breed, and are not generally characterised by the spontaneity and informality of more traditional mentoring relationships. Despite the growth in mentoring programmes, however, there is comparatively little research on planned and structured mentoring (Lucas, 2001; Bennetts, 2003; Philip, 2003) and there is a distinct lack of empirical evidence to support the long-term impact of mentoring initiatives (Colley, 2001, 2003a; Miller, 2002; Reid, 2002; Shiner et al, 2004).

The Projects

This paper stems from an evaluation project that, in part, seeks to address the deficiency outlined above. Within the following discussion we report on the research, which is concerned with the impact of two ongoing corporate-sponsored physical activity programmes that seek to promote personal and social development in young people. In particular, we highlight the issues that have arisen from the experiences of adult volunteers who are involved with each of the initiatives. The first programme is the HSBC/Outward Bound partnership project, which provides various outdoor activity experiences for pupils from five schools in the Docklands area of London (adjacent to HSBC’s UK head office). A number of HSBC staff are involved in this initiative as volunteer mentors, and are trained to work with the pupils both within the project activity sessions and also in other school activities. The second programme is the Kielder Challenge project, sponsored by the HSBC Education Trust, and is an established competition run by the Fieldfare Trust. This project involves young people with and without disabilities, and requires them to work together in teams to complete various outdoor challenges. Again, volunteers from HSBC staff are involved in this process as team escorts, accompanying the young people around the challenges and proving support and encouragement.

Although in each of the projects the adult volunteers have a different title, the roles that they undertake are, in fact, very similar. Moreover, it is evident from the aims and objectives of the project sponsor that the intention for these individuals is to function in some form of mentoring capacity. As such, throughout the remainder of the paper, the term ‘mentor’ will be used to refer to both groups of adult volunteers.

Data Collection

The evaluation’s research design includes a range of methods, predominantly qualitative, which are intended to allow for the continued generation, collation and analysis of a diverse body of data. The primary methods employed include participant observation (with the subsequent recording of fieldnotes), semi-structured reflective journals, individual interviews, focus groups, and structured feedback sheets. The data generated through these methods are collated to construct individual databases, case study profiles and analyses of key themes that are linked to the anticipated project outcomes. As this paper focuses predominantly on the adult mentors/escorts involved in the two projects, it is principally concerned with reporting data from observations, interviews and reflective journals on the expectations and experiences of these specific groups of individuals throughout the first 18 months of the evaluation.

Data Section / Discussion

Although only 18 months into a five-year evaluation, the data generated indicates that there are clearly potential benefits for all involved in the youth mentoring/volunteering process. For example, a number of the mentors described the experience as ‘enjoyable’, ‘challenging’ and ‘inspiring’, and, for some, the mentoring process had highlighted new personal skills and a desire to undertake subsequent work with young people. However, it is also evident that there are a number of significant issues in need of further consideration. Some of these issues are now presented here in relation to five key themes that have emerged through the analysis process.

(i) Unrealistic Expectations about/for the Young People

A significant number of the mentors indicated that they had little or no experience of working with young people before volunteering to become involved in the projects. As one mentor noted, ‘the last time I spent any amount of time with 13 year olds is when I was one of them!’ As such, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of individuals admitted to holding somewhat unrealistic views concerning the behaviours, attitudes, and abilities of the young people they would be working with. For some, the mentoring process had broken down pre-conceived stereotypes, and allowed them to build a more positive and constructive picture of contemporary youth. As one mentor commented:

‘I thought they’d be more naughty, and they weren’t. They were really nice kids…I suppose you stereotype don’t you, you know inner city London school kids, from poor backgrounds, you’d think there’d be frightening scenes of…whatever’ (Iain)

However, some mentors’ experiences were not so positive, and served to destroy the utopian illusions of compassionate and harmonious relationships that they had been constructing. As Lisa tearfully proclaimed after witnessing some bullying behaviour among her group:

‘I thought that they were going to be human beings, not little monsters!’

Both of these accounts reinforce the need, highlighted in the literature, for volunteer adults to undergo some degree of training before taking up their role working with young people (Rhodes, 2002). They also highlight the need for individuals in a mentoring role to be flexible and adaptable, as well as reinforcing the evolving nature of mentoring, and its position as learning process (Bennetts, 2003; Ellis, 2003).

(ii) Confusion over their Role

Colley (2003a) found that a key feature within the interviews that she conducted with adult mentors was ‘the confusion and conflict they expressed with regard to the role expected of them’ (p.532). This uncertainty over the mentor role can perhaps be seen to reflect wider confusion over the definition of the term. There is a distinct lack of consensus over the precise definition and nature of mentoring (Roberts, 2000; Lucas, 2001; Miller, 2002; Philip, 2003), and it has been noted that nostalgic retrospective analyses of prominent mentor relationships, and the indiscriminate use of the term for a variety of practices, has led to both confusion and unrealistic expectations for contemporary mentors (Lucas, 2001; Bennetts, 2003). In addition, the lack of clarity surrounding the definition of informal education can be seen, perhaps, to compound the issue. Within the evaluation research, confusion over the role that adult volunteers were expected to take was a key feature, particularly in the early stages of the projects. As one mentor commented:

‘No-one really knew what was expected of us, when we were supposed to be somewhere, where we were supposed to be, what we were supposed to be doing, and that was quite mentally draining’ (Jane)

In addition to the confusion, however, it was also clear that the role people felt they were required to play differed from one individual to another. For example, one person felt that their role was:

‘…to act as an interested non-teacher adult, and to provide support for the participants’ (Bill)

Whereas another commented that she saw her role as simply being:

‘an alternative person. You’re not a teacher and you’re not an instructor, so if they’re not sure who to go to then you’ll do almost, (you’re) another option’ (Diane)

Other individuals talked of being ‘neutral adults’, ‘helpers’, and ‘supporters’, and it was clear that, in some cases, people tailored their actions to the needs and demands of the situation. As Tom commented:

‘I didn’t have any idea of what our role would be, I expected that that would become clear when we got there. I just went in open-minded and just thought I’d do what I got told to do in the first instance, and then when you were a bit more grounded, then things might take a slightly different direction’

In this respect, it is clear that one or two individuals, at least, understood something of the intricacies of the mentoring process. The approach outlined above also reflects a growing recognition in the literature that mentoring is a complex and diverse activity, a practice that is neither static nor simple but that evolves over time (Roberts, 2000; Miller, 2002; Ellis, 2003).

(iii) ‘Buying Into’ the Experience

Another point worth noting here is there was some suggestion that one or two individuals found it hard to separate their ‘business’ role from their role as a mentor. One individual in particular, felt very strongly about this, and suggested that it was important to be able to leave your own needs and interests ‘at the door’ when taking up a voluntary role working with young people. As he said:

‘I hate the fact that things become too corporate and we forget why we are there, to help the children and have a good time, not to think about how it looks to the shareholders etc’ (Jack)

This itself highlights another of the key issues raised by the mentors; the need to have the ‘right kind of people’ involved in the projects. Again, this notion has some support within the mentoring literature, with authors emphasising the need for keen, motivated individuals who have a desire to bring about real change (Reid, 2002; Ellis, 2003). For the mentors in this evaluation research, the need for people who were willing to ‘buy into’ the philosophy of the initiatives was felt to be important, in order to ensure that the needs of the young people were prioritised ahead of personal agendas, and to create a relaxed and enjoyable environment for all. As another mentor commented:

‘I am concerned that there are too many of the wrong people helping out, the kind of people who don’t mix well and get stuck in…it puts the children off and creates an atmosphere’ (Carl)

It could be argued that this point relates to the previously noted confusion regarding the role of the adult mentor, insomuch that individuals caught between two sets of responsibilities are, perhaps, more likely to experience uncertainty, conflict, and doubt. However, it can also be seen to highlight the problems that can arise when the aims of a particular group are not made clear within a programme design, and volunteer mentors are not provided with appropriate training and direction.

(iv) Unsure of ability to provide effective support

One of the dangers of the insecurities outlined above is that individuals entering into mentoring roles do so with significant doubts about their ability to undertake the job. A number of the mentors within the evaluation research referred to this kind of situation, and indicated that prior to the activity sessions they had anticipated being unable to build positive relationships with, or provide effective support to, the young people in their groups. As Nathan noted:

‘I was surprised, because I thought that it would be a really huge age gap and that I wouldn’t be able to relate to the kids at all or speak to them comfortably, (but when I got there) I didn’t feel like that at all. It was just quite natural, easy going’

The task of mentoring a young person is often incredibly daunting (Reid, 2002), and it can be something of an emotional journey for the mentors (Colley, 2001). As such, it has been noted that mentors require a significant amount of support so that they feel valued and part of a team (Miller, 2002; Ellis, 2003). However, it could also be argued that they also require a certain amount of preparation in order to equip them for the task. Although mentoring is an evolving process, it is also helpful for individuals to enter the mentoring situation armed with some knowledge and skills that will allow them to act confidently and purposefully. In particular, perhaps, it is important for mentors to know how to facilitate the learning process, rather than it simply being left to chance.

For one or two mentors, the fact that they could, and did, facilitate some changes in the young people in their groups came as something of a surprise. As one mentor commented:

‘I was surprised by what they wrote in the presentations, and the amount of impact we had on them. It was quite a shock to hear how emotional they were to us…I’m a role model! It’s quite a big thing’ (Ali)

It has been suggested that mentors acting as role models, although not essential, is highly contingent to the mentoring process (Roberts, 2000; Miller, 2002). Moreover, mentoring is believed to stimulate growth in young people, because they can see something of their potential adult self within the behaviour, attitudes and demeanour of their mentors (Ellis, 2003; Philip, 2003). For the mentor quoted above, the positive influence that she had on her group was not premeditated and was therefore not expected. As such, we could perhaps query what might have been the results if she had undertaken a more pro-active informal educator role?

(v) Sustainable relationships

Perhaps the biggest concern for the mentors involved in the two projects outlined here was the lack of opportunity to develop sustainable relationships between mentors and young people. As one mentor noted:

‘I think that it would be a great shame after the effort and the interest that the mentors have put into it, that there is nothing more… I think that we have much expertise and value that we can add on an ongoing basis…There has to be more to it than that’ (Melissa)

Golden et al (2002), among others, have pointed out that long-term relationships are highly significant in mentoring programmes, and that sustainability is often a primary concern within such initiatives. Others also point to the need for mentors to have sufficient quality time with the young people that they are trying to help, and highlight the significance of building up trust within the mentoring relationship (Miller, 2002; Bennetts, 2003; Ellis, 2003). As Garvey and Alred (2000) contend, ‘the relationship is all important’ (p.121).

The mentors within the activity projects appeared to recognise the importance of maintaining contact with the young people, but they also felt extremely unsure as to just how the relationships could progress. As Mia says:

‘It’s just how do we maintain that, you know, how do we physically do it. Whether it’s by email or telephone or meetings, how do we keep in touch with these kids so that we don’t lose what we’ve already built’ (Mia)

The lack of structured opportunities to engage with young people following the activity sessions was certainly identified as a major concern for the mentors. However, it was also felt that this issue highlighted a more fundamental need to readdress the role of the mentors in the projects. As one individual suggested, if the mentors were to have a significant impact on the young people within their groups, then they would need to be more than simply additional ‘aides’ or helpers.

‘It’s actually an issue, what is our role of ‘mentor’ going forward. Is it just to be there on some of these activities, to be a helper or supporter? I think there is more to it than just being there as another aide to make sure that the activities happen… you’ve got to keep contact with the young people’ (Janet)

Implications / Conclusion

It can be seen from an expanding body of literature that mentoring is now an extremely fashionable tool within youth development programmes, and that its use in educational contexts in particular seems set to increase (Miller, 2002; Reid, 2002; Philip, 2003). Moreover, it is clear that sport and physical activities are increasingly being perceived as a potential base for informal education processes, and to promote personal and social responsibility in young people (Hellison, 1995, 1988; Burt, 1998). It is argued that physical activity settings do provide powerful contexts for informal education. Indeed, it is often the claim of PE teachers to be undertaking ‘informal education’ within their classes. However, it could, at present, be argued that this process is somewhat more ‘accidental’ than intentional. In relation to mentoring programmes, research has shown that careful project planning and preparation are required in order to ensure that all participants share a common framework of understanding prior to undertaking their mentor roles (Roberts, 2000). From the above discussion, it could also be argued that mentors would benefit from having clear understanding of the informal education process, so that in their relationships with young people they can maximise the learning opportunities. Perhaps the key issue here is the need for mentors to enter the mentoring process with a clear intent to foster learning, rather than an assumption that learning will naturally take place.

It is clear that mentoring as a process certainly has potential to enhance the informal education aspect of youth physical activity programmes; the question remains, how do we optimise the opportunity? How can we ensure that individuals, such as the mentors involved in the two programmes outlined above, are not merely ‘additional adults’ passively supporting young people engaged in other activities, but are effective informal educators fostering learning within their groups? Given the above discussion, and the vast body of literature in this area, there would appear to be a number of starting points. These include having a more defined mentor role, linking mentoring more closely with the practices of informal education, ensuring that mentors are keen and committed to the process, and ensuring there is detailed mentor preparation. In some respect, all four points can be seen to relate to one another, and are grounded in a need for individuals to be clear about the aims and objectives of the mentoring process and the ways in which they can be achieved. Sipe (1998) highlights three features deemed to be essential to the success of mentoring initiatives: screening, orientation/training, and support/supervision. A lack of any one of these, it is argued, makes it harder to sustain positive relationships between mentors and young people. Whereas most programmes have careful selection procedures, however, only a handful will have in-depth training and ongoing support (Stukas & Tanti, 2005). Tackling this deficiency would certainly appear to be a good place to start in terms of addressing some of the issues outlined above, and improving the effectiveness of mentoring initiatives.


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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 11 May 2006