Starting an alumni network for your school


Alumni networks can bring huge benefits to schools, but not many spend the time to develop them. Alex Shapland-Howes argues why schools should, and offers some advice.

More than nine in 10 people in this country walk out of their school after their last exam and never ever go back. This is a massive wasted opportunity.

I used to teach maths in north London. There were some of the brightest kids I had ever met, supported by a team of incredibly talented and hard-working teachers, all in a shiny, new building. I’ve managed to keep in touch with a couple of my favourites (we all have them!) and it is increasingly clear that despite the great school and high levels of ambition in almost every one, they are going to find it incredibly difficult to find a job that they find fulfilling.

Young people leaving education now are joining an ever more competitive and fluid job market, where the idea of a career for life no longer has currency. 

There is no doubting that the job market presents young people today with a whole new set of challenges, but the problem facing them is actually deeper than that – particularly in more disadvantaged areas.

Of all the countries in the OECD, the UK has the strongest correlation between the earnings of individuals and those of their parents. This lack of “social mobility” is one of the things that all the main political parties want to tackle.

The causes are varied and complex, but top class teaching for all young people is the first and biggest part of the solution. The very best teachers motivate, inspire and lead their students’ learning every single day.

But, I believe that the teacher’s job is impossible unless students truly believe that with the right skills and commitment they can become whatever they want to be – regardless of who their parents are.

You might think some of your students have got too much confidence – but I think it’s easy to confuse bravado with true self-belief. It is vital that young people going through school believe that they can succeed. Lose sight of the job at the end of tunnel and it is not long before those seemingly endless exams seem a little less worth working for.

This is why the charity I run, Future First, works to encourage people across the country to return to their old schools. By going back to talk to students about the path they have followed since they left and the lessons they have learnt along the way (especially the tough ones), they can transform young people’s perceptions about what “people like them” go on to do. 

Anyone who likes their job can be an inspirational career role model. This needn’t be about celebrities or people with the flashiest job – if someone likes what they do, there’s a good chance a student at their old school would too. 

The students I used to teach knew a list of jobs that they come across in their lives: teacher, shop assistant and television presenter, for example. But even for those careers, they did not know what steps they would need to follow to get them.

Alongside trained careers advisors, people in jobs can play a role in filling this information gap. Some of the most amazing sessions I have seen through Future First have been with jobs that the students couldn’t initially believe were jobs at all.

Yes – you can make a living selling cupcakes. Yes – it is possible to work in a bank and not be a banker. And yes – you can get a job advising companies on how to use Twitter better.

By meeting real people in a range of jobs, students leave better informed about the options they could choose in the future, the skills needed to get there, and how to confront the hurdles they will face along the way. More than 90 per cent of the teachers we work with say they think this motivates their students to work harder afterwards.

There are teachers in almost every school who have one or two connections to successful former students, but too often they are lost when teachers move on or retire, and rarely are they shared across the school to allow colleagues to make the most of them. 

A great place to start with engaging former students is to collect a central database of contacts – even if it is just a list in a spreadsheet. You can then start to invite them back in as career role models, mentors, or ask whether they would be able to take a work experience student.

It is also important to start to try to keep in contact with school-leavers. The main social media platforms are amazing free tools that can help to do this, but it is definitely worth collecting email addresses and mobile numbers too. 

My old favourites will probably end up doing okay, but we have all met countless success stories of students who might not have looked destined for great things at 16 or 18. Our vision at Future First is that every school across the country has a thriving, engaged alumni community that helps to support current students. Our charity exists to help make this as easy and inexpensive as possible.

  • Alex Shapland-Howes is the managing director of Future First.

Further information
Future First is a charity which helps schools and colleges to use the experiences and skills of their former students. Visit

CAPTION: Voice of experience: Preston Manor School in London hosts an alumni carousel event in partnership with Future First



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