Newsmaker: Child benefit - Gracia McGrath chief executive, Chance UK

Dominic Wood

Gracia McGrath was expelled from school at 16 for screaming abuse at her headmistress. "The teacher punished me for truancy by not entering me for an O-level exam, but only told me once I had sat down to take it," she says.

The outburst cost her a good school reference, which made it tough to find a job. But it also influenced her decision in 2001 to become chief executive at Chance UK, which recruits adults to mentor children aged between five and 11.

She still identifies strongly with the problems of young people. "Suffice to say, I am just a grown-up version of one of our kids," she says. This self-assessment is reinforced by her mobile ringtone: 50 Cent's In Da Club.

Chance facilitates 100 mentoring relationships a year, geared to helping children improve their concentration, self-esteem and sense of responsibility, or to achieve better grades.

Child and mentor meet for between two and four hours every week, with the first couple of months spent building a trusting relationship.

Since she joined Chance, McGrath has nurtured its mentoring model, which has impressed some influential people. She has the ear of Chancellor Gordon Brown, who threw a Downing Street party for Chance mentors last December and mentioned the organisation at a youth volunteering conference in January.

"It is exceptionally powerful to have someone at that level who understands what we are doing," says McGrath.

McGrath's influence at the top doesn't end in the Treasury. She has enticed 10 Home Office staff to become Chance mentors. In fact, Chance is at the heart of Home Office plans to make mentoring a normal national activity. The department awarded the charity Gold Star status last April, which ranks it among the eight best-run mentoring schemes in the UK.

But the accolade requires the charity to replicate its celebrated model at organisations across the UK that have expressed an interest in setting up similar child mentoring schemes. Many had contacted Chance after reading a five-page Observer magazine article about mentoring at the charity in 2002.

When she arrived at Chance, McGrath thought its model was "too fantastic" to be limited to Islington and Hackney, and decided to see if it could work elsewhere. So far, it has successfully transferred to mentoring charity Turning Point in Northern Ireland, which has created 20 mentors since early 2004. But with recent capacity building grants totalling £377,000, McGrath has grand plans.

"I'd like to set up three franchises this year and 15 in the next three years," she says. "They will be locally run, with local money and local volunteers. Once some have launched, we can start to pool our money to run national mentoring recruitment campaigns."

McGrath has introduced a series of measures to boost the impact of Chance's mentoring model. In 2002, she developed the Parent Plus service to ensure parents of mentored children were more closely involved. A year later, she drew up healthy eating guidelines to counter hyperactivity in mentored children. She also insists that the one-year relationships have "positive" endings and holds graduation days for mentor and child.

McGrath's empathy with the youngsters helped by Chance doesn't quite extend to mentoring them herself. "It's much easier to be even-handed by being one step removed from the process," she explains.

But she does believe that nearly everyone else should do it: "My ambition is that people start to view mentoring as something they do naturally.

But my ultimate aim is to be around when we enlist the first mentor that we mentored. Then I will retire."

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