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Mentoring – too much of a good thing?
Kevin Wong and Rachel Horan examine the risk of the mentor relationship creating dependency rather than agency.

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Drawing on lived experience

This is a guest post by Kevin Wong Reader in Community Justice and Associate Director of the Policy Evaluation and Research Unit at Manchester Metropolitan University and Dr Rachel Horan Director of the Averment Group. You can reach Kevin on:

Opt-in, open-ended mentoring for people with convictions, allowing them to dip in and out of services without sanction arguably aligns with the paradigm of the zig-zag (Glaser, 1964), nomadic (Phillips, 2017) desistance journey of individuals.  However, balancing supporting an individual’s agency, while avoiding fostering dependency is tricky. What are the conditions which support the former and avoid the latter?

This is something that we examined in our recent paper  published in the European Journal of Probation, where we proposed enhancements to Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) ‘effectiveness framework’ for mentoring (HMPPS 2019).  We drew on the lived experience of mentees and mentors collected during the evaluation of a such an opt-in, open-ended scheme in England.

Why does dependency matter?

Understanding the dynamics of the mentee-mentor relationship is important to engender a necessary balance of capital and agency development whilst avoiding mentee dependency.

To date, limited attention has been paid in the rehabilitation literature for someone with a conviction to become dependent on their case worker/support worker. One of the few studies to highlight this observed that “…the mentor had been to some extent manipulated by the client to act as a ‘taxi’ to agencies and to deal with all their practical problems for them.” (Maguire et al, 2010:42).

There are good reasons for this absence.

The requirement for individuals to comply with probation supervision, instrumental or otherwise  means that sustaining an individual’s engagement through their order is the dominant focus with dependency on the supervisor (arguably) being less of a concern. 

What about where compliance is not an issue? Dependency has also not been a concern among the growing but still relatively under-developed evidence base around services that individuals voluntarily engage with; whether time limited or non-time restricted.

What does dependency look like?

Our study confirmed the importance of the quality of the relationship between the person with convictions and whoever they are working with, whether it is a probation officer or mentor.  However, it also highlighted how dependency can occur.  The following features were important in the interplay between fostering agency and avoiding dependency.

  • Mentor characteristics – mentee’s perception of genuine care, compassion and interest by the mentor engendered mentee agency.
  • ‘Shared driving’; a form of ‘co-production’ was important in enabling agency, but if not carefully managed it could also foster dependency.
  • Mentee characteristics that supported the mentee’s agency included motivation towards positive life goals such as: being substance free, employability and ceasing offending.
  • Shared goals – between mentor and mentee derived from shared planning and allowing for flexibility over time.
  • Relationships could be ‘too long’ – where the relationship was viewed to have achieved outcomes but had then tipped towards the mentor driving the relationship fostering dependency rather than agency

Implications for policy and practice

While noting the limitations of our study we have applied the learning to the HMPPS (2019) framework/guidance which identifies “what we know works well” and where mentoring is “less likely to work well”.  These are grouped around the HMPPS principles/themes detailed in the left-hand column of the table below with proposed enhancements to the framework based on the findings from our study – intended to engender agency and avoid dependency.

HMPPS framework – principles/themes

Proposed enhancements based on the study findings to foster agency and avoid dependency

Shared goals/outcome setting and review – Setting agreed achievable goals/outcomes between mentor and mentee in a realistic action plan comprising (often) small manageable goals and which are regularly reviewed.

Responsivity and realism – changing and flexing goals and outcomes over time in response to changing needs

Shared driving of the relationship between the mentor and mentee

Sustainable support provided by the mentor to the mentee

Mentors maintaining a balance of trust and guidance to avoid dependency

Bringing the relationship to a definitive end  


Planning at review points (between mentee and mentor) for the relationship to end

Recruitment, training and support – Recruiting individuals to be mentors to match mentees and providing them with support and training to enable mentors to meet the needs and expectations of mentees.


Reflective practice – through supervision mentors encouraged to review their relationships with mentees to avoid the tipping point between agency and dependency

Management support and oversight of the mentoring relationships

And finally…

It should be noted that while mentoring has long featured as policy and practice for people with convictions in the United Kingdom (UK) and other jurisdictions, the evidence for its effectiveness is mixed. Among other resources, this probation inspectorate briefing by Dr Gill Buck summarises the evidence base in relation to mentoring and peer mentoring in criminal justice and this evidence review by the same author provides a more detailed examination of the role and effectiveness of peer mentoring.

Readers might also be interested in a new website acting as a hub for information and best practice around people with lived experience, many of whom work as peer mentors.


Glaser D (1964) The Effectiveness of a Prison and Parole System. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs- Merrill.

Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service  (2019) Mentoring services for people in prison and on probation: A summary of evidence relating to the effectiveness of mentoring services for people in prison and on probation. Available at:  [Accessed 11th November 2021]

Maguire M, Holloway K, Liddle M, Gordon F, Gray P, Smith A and Wright S. (2010) Evaluation of the Transitional Support Scheme (TSS): Final Report to the Welsh Assembly Government, 2010. Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

Phillips J (2017) Towards a rhizomatic understanding of the desistance journey. The Howard Journal of Crime and Justice, 56(1): 92-104.

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