Creative Mentoring – A Local Authority perspective by Kim Johnson

Back in 2006 I attended a conference where some shocking data was shared, showing massive inequality in the educational achievement of children in care. I was saddened to hear how these already disadvantaged children were likely to be adversely affected by poor attainment throughout their lives. The call to action at the end of the conference was “what can you do to help?”

At that time, I was working for Derbyshire’s School Improvement Service and in my Arts Education role I was determined to find new ways to make positive change. 20 years in Education had taught me that Creativity is at the heart of learning and I decided that this would be the focus of the work.

“The arts produce the most eloquent expressions of human intelligence, imagination and creativity. They beat at the heart of human life and give form and meaning to our deepest feelings and highest thoughts.” Sir Ken Robinson (2015)

Academic achievement through formal education often appears to be the only learning that really counts. But evidence shows that creativity is one of the greatest predictors of outcomes for young people in later life is their level of engagement in learning opportunities in which they can demonstrate curiosity, playfulness, interest and passion (Ted Wagner, 2015)

Prof. Bill Lucas (Centre for Real World Learning, University of Winchester) describes the characteristics of a Creative learner as:
– Being imaginative: being able to play with possibilities and make connections.
– Being inquisitive: exercising your curiosity, exploring and challenging assumptions.
– Being persistent: you will need to stick with difficulty when you are thinking of a new way of approaching something.
– Being collaborative.
– Being disciplined.

Given that formal education and creativity are not only compatible, but vitally connected, and reflecting on what I’d heard at conference, I figured that Arts Education could make a big impact by helping children in care to find renewed purpose for learning through their own creativity.

With this conviction, Creative Mentoring was developed in Derbyshire, to help bring creativity and personalised learning into moments of educational crisis.

Fast forward 14 years and Derbyshire’s Creative Mentoring Service is embedded in the Virtual School.  Over 100 children each year, aged from 4 to 19 years are referred through Personal Education Plans. Creative Mentors are commissioned using Pupil Premium Plus.
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Children are referred for a Creative Mentor because they are struggling with education, most often due to delayed development and attachment issues arising from childhood neglect and trauma. The reasons for referral are many but include school exclusion, emotionally based school refusal, anxiety and mental health difficulties, teenage pregnancy, difficulties making relationships and poor levels of engagement in lessons.

When a young person is disengaged and so ‘stuck’ that supporting professionals are struggling to improve the situation, a creative mentor can be commissioned to work with the young person one to one. Briefed jointly by social care professionals and schools, the Creative Mentor refocuses effort away from ‘improving behaviour’ to identify what it is the young person needs to help them become ‘unstuck’, and to find and develop interests, build their skills, confidence and competences and help them reengage.

The Creative Mentor takes time to get to know the young person and creative activity is introduced. The means of working with the child is always practical, using a range of different tools (for example film, drama, music, poetry, photography and stories) to help young people safely explore the world around them, learn new skills, communicate with others and address personal and emotional issues from a ‘creative distance’. 

Activity takes place at home, school or in the community over varying lengths of time, dependent on what specific targets are set. The Creative Mentor may even decide to learn new skills in order to support the child and encourage other supporting adults to get involved too. Learning together has proved to be a powerful way to build stronger relationships.

Through planning activity collaboratively with the young person alongside their supporting adults, Creative Mentors help to identify personalised pathways for progression. They carefully nurture young people’s social and emotional development, enabling them to develop their interests, engage fully in education and focus on their ambitions.

Creative Mentors help us to be aspirational for the children we care for, by making visible their unique talents to reveal their often-hidden ambition.

“When you’ve been in the care system you get quite a lot of built up emotions and you can’t really talk about them, you don’t know how to talk about them properly. But when you have a Creative Mentor you don’t have to talk, you can use your hands to express your feelings, using a pen, some clay or a piece of wood. And you can understand yourself more by listening to various music and writing your own songs. You know you’re not going to get judged and that there is someone who will listen to you, who will pick up on things you share through art.” Young person

“I have felt honoured and privileged to have worked with a Virtual School Creative Mentor.  Before she came onboard the only image of the child that I could see was the one portrayed by family and school, all his other sides were hidden to us all.  Through her work she helped him, and us see and learn so much more.  I wonder how many other sides of other young people could have been made visible to me the child themselves and their carers with this kind of input? Giving us different openings and ways to connect.” Social Worker.

Since Virtual School was established in 2014, Creative Mentoring has enabled hundreds of children and young people to grow in confidence and go on to achieve way beyond what they thought they could – being successful in school, gaining qualifications, making friends, gaining apprenticeships and going to University.

Derbyshire’s Creative Mentors are highly skilled in their support for children in care, but we should note that there are experienced arts educators in every region of the UK. There is a major opportunity to develop Creative Mentors as an effective frontline workforce and we are pleased to be working with The Mighty Creatives to explore the potential to further develop the approach with other Virtual Schools and Local Authorities.

If you would like to know more about the Creative Mentoring work of Derbyshire Virtual School you can contact

To find out more about how to get involved with the regional roll out programme of Creative Mentoring led by The Mighty Creatives in partnership with Derbyshire Virtual School and The Amber Factory contact