A mentoring scheme for teenage girls has been launched in the Tees Valley this autumn, and has already attracted support from some of the region's leading businesswomen. Hannah Chapman reports.

OUR young people are under pressure like never before, with issues around education choices, social media scrutiny and family life all taking their toll on the mental health of the next generation. While not wishing to downplay the difficulties of growing up in 2020 for boys and young men, there are some specific challenges for girls and young women.

Figures show there are 106,000 more young women than young men that are classed as NEET – not in education, employment, or training – and economically inactive, and women remain NEET for longer. At the age of 16, 50 per cent of girls from the poorest homes achieve no GCSE passes above grade D.

For the least advantaged, accessing help can be difficult, with school budgets and community support services stretched almost to breaking point.

National charity The Girls Network aims to change this – not by throwing around soundbites about "girl power" that in reality mean little to young women striving for the opportunities they deserve, but instead by pairing girls with mentors from a network of professional women who can offer practical advice.

Set up by two teachers in 2013, the charity aims to inspire and empower girls aged 14 to 19 from the country's least advantaged communities. It expanded into the North-East three years ago and has been working with young women and mentors in and around Newcastle. This autumn it is launching a mentoring programme in the Tees Valley, thanks to funding from Tees Valley Combined Authority and spearheaded by Professor Jane Turner, Teesside University’s pro vice-chancellor for enterprise and business engagement, as well as gender champion.

The Northern Echo:

“We have a moral obligation to do everything we can to make sure that the young women of our region are enabled to build the futures they deserve," says Prof Turner. "The Girls Network will create a network of mentors and mentees that will change outcomes and lives.”

Professional volunteers are trained in mentoring and safeguarding by The Girls’ Network and meet their mentees at least once a month for a year.

The scheme has already seen success in Newcastle. One fifteen-year-old, whose school was one of the first in the North-East to get involved, says it was “one of the best decisions she could have made” as she looked to pursue a career combining the military with STEM.

Her mentor, who worked at Durham University, put her in contact with a female air marshal, so that she could learn about her experiences and career path. She says her mentor helped her “shine a light on qualities I never knew I had,” as well as providing practical help with time management skills and how to develop a CV.

In the Tees Valley, the charity has brought on board Rosalind Stuart to manage the launch and running of the programme.

The Northern Echo:

“Girls from the least advantaged communities in Tees Valley face the double disadvantage of both the class and glass ceiling, and often struggle to access effective careers advice and support with building self-confidence," she says. "Plus, we know you can’t be what you can’t see, so I want to match as many of these girls as I can with a local role model, to inspire them to think big with their ambitions. I know there are so many women in the region who have learnt life lessons along the way, who are willing to commit an hour a month to make a difference to the life of a local girl. Perhaps they wish they’d had a mentor themselves at that age. If this is you, get in touch.”

Professional women with three or more years’ work experience can apply at www.thegirlsnetwork.org.uk

Some of the Tees Valley's leading businesswomen, who are already involved with The Girls' Network, have explained why the mentoring process is so important:

Angela Lockwood

CEO North Star Housing Group

The Northern Echo:

“I’m choosing to mentor for three reasons. Firstly because I want to do some good, and I know that the young women in our region need support right now. Secondly, because I think I’m going to get a lot out of it! I’m looking forward to being challenged and stretched by my mentee. And lastly because as a professional woman it’s important to me to support the next generation of professional women. Our region needs all the talent and diversity it can get, to me, it’s an absolute privilege to have a chance to support our young women.”

Joanne Fryett

Business development director at NEPIC

The Northern Echo:

“I have had a great number of people support me and as a result I am now in a position to be able to give something back, so the Girls Network was a natural choice for me to get involved with. We live in a fantastic part of the world, but I know not everyone has access to all that it has to offer. So being able to support one young woman to recognise her potential and open up the array of opportunities available was so important to me. Having a daughter myself, who has been educated in the Tees Valley and has been supported through friends, colleagues and contacts, I know only too well how daunting it can be when you are trying to explore career options and choices. Some are not always that obvious. I feel it is not only my duty, but it’s a real privilege that I can be involved and help to support our next generation of future leading lights across all aspects of our community.”

Claire Preston

Director, North Yorkshire Education Services

The Northern Echo:

“I’m thrilled to see how initial discussions with Prof Jane Turner around women supporting women and mentoring more specifically, have (in true Jane style) developed into a fantastic collaboration with The Girls Network. Young people need role models, support and encouragement to understand life challenges, believe their potential and the opportunities available to them. Mentors inspire and motivate and can make a vast difference to the setting and achieving of life goals and along with many others locally, I want to make sure that as many girls as possible have access to not only mentors, but future professional options and greater life chances.”

Sharon Lane

Managing director, Tees Components

The Northern Echo:

“We have a large and strong network of professional women here in Tees Valley, and have been actively trying to establish a way of providing mentoring to girls and young women. It was therefore incredibly exciting to find that the Girls’ Network could provide a structured means by which we can be partnered with mentees. I am delighted that TVCA is supporting this initiative, spearheaded by Professor Jane Turner OBE, and I know that with the benefit of our professional experience and networks, we can really make a difference to the lives of less advantaged girls and young women. I was part of the first training cohort in February and I can’t wait to make a start.”