From prison to lockdown: how to make peer-mentoring work in the crisis

by | Oct 6, 2020 | Connecting our communities, Social investment

The best ideas are born out of necessity, and for St Giles that was finding a way to deliver the Peer Advisor programme during Covid-19.

The programme trains people with lived experience of social exclusion, including many prisoners and prison-leavers, to become Level 3 qualified Peer Advisors who then go on to support others from similar backgrounds. It plays a significant role in helping people overcome barriers and move towards employment; research from Cranfield University found that prisoners that go through the St Giles mentoring scheme are 3x more likely to be employed  than otherwise – and for every 100 that participate we can estimate a £6.5m saving to the public purse through national insurance contributions alone.

Yet with the roll-out of Covid-19 prevention measures, many of those developing their peer mentoring skills or who were receiving mentoring have grown increasingly concerned; the programme relies on face to face interaction, and without this regular connection, a vital piece of  support is missing. Moving to face-to-face calls was not an easy fix; many St Giles’ learners do not have the skills or confidence to use digital technology.

Case study: online mentoring with Connectr

Joseph is a learner on the St Giles Peer Circles project, and just released from prison. He had started volunteering, usually around three times a week, completed most of his coursework and was preparing to complete his job observations as part of his qualification just as the lockdown started. During lockdown, St Giles has been in constant touch to check in and make sure he’s keeping himself busy and encouraging him to keep at positive activities. But Joseph was really missing the face-to-face support of his peer mentor, especially having just been released into a very isolating environment.

With the support of the City & Guilds Foundation, St Giles was able to develop an online mentoring programme – ‘Connectr’  –  which keeps mentors connected to learners, helping them continue working towards qualifications, and bridging the gap created by social distancing measures. Ultimately, this the support meant St Giles could continue providing vital lifelines to people like Joseph and deliver their life-changing work.

The value of the new platform has the potential to go far beyond the immediate crisis and has potential to substantially increase the impact of the Peer Advisor programme in the long-term. By creating a stronger sense of community and keeping people connected, both within local groups and across the UK, St Giles will be able to reach more vulnerable people. Importantly, providing services through a digital platform offers a vital upskilling opportunity for individuals to develop the digital literacy they need to be part of a society that is increasingly reliant on technology. 

“We are really pleased that the City & Guilds Foundation is funding our work to develop the Connectr platform to support our Peer Advisor programme. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of continuing working with Peer Advisors even when we cannot do so face-to-face. The Connectr platform will help create an online community where Peer Advisors can continue their learning and stay in contact with their Trainer. Most importantly, the hundreds of Peer Advisors on our programmes around the country will be able to communicate with each other, sharing ideas, good practice and encourage and motivate so that all our Peers have the confidence and skills to continue to change the lives of those facing severe challenges. With so many of our most vulnerable struggling with increased social isolation, poverty and mental health issues as a result of the current pandemic, our Peers have never been more needed.”

Andy Cross, Director of Services, St Giles Trust
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