Secondary school alumni networks

Written by: Christine Gilbert | Published:
Future thoughts: Students and alumni at Ark St Albans Academy in Birmingham during the recent Back to School Week Birmingham 2017 (Image: Graham Bedingfield)

The charity Future First helps schools to set up and run effective alumni networks with the aim of boosting aspirations and supporting students. Christine Gilbert explains how

Three-quarters of judges, three-quarters of top military officers, nearly two-thirds of top doctors and more than half of leading print journalists. Never have Britain’s elite jobs been more dominated by privately educated students, despite only seven per cent of pupils attending independent schools.

Across the country, thousands of youngsters from more disadvantaged families are missing out on fulfilling careers just because of their background. Birmingham, which has been identified by the government as a “cold spot” for careers support, is just one of the areas hit by this problem.

Evidence from the Careers and Enterprise Company, set up by government in 2015 to work in partnership with schools, colleges, employers and youth organisations to create opportunity for all young people, has highlighted specific needs in different parts of the country. It indicates that a quarter of Birmingham’s students are eligible for free school meals.

It also shows that students from the city are significantly underachieving at GCSE level, with only around half attaining five or more A* to C grades. We also know that a mere three per cent of Birmingham’s youngsters go into a sustained Apprenticeship after school.

In March, state school students across the city took part in Future First’s Back to School Week, showing how alumni networks can boost students’ motivation and confidence, helping them to believe that “people like them” can succeed in their chosen career.

Participating secondary schools – like Kings Norton Girls’ School, Holyhead School and Ark St Albans Academy – are building alumni networks which support current and future generations of students as positive role-models, inspiring speakers, mentors and work experience providers.

Private schools and universities have long known the value of keeping their alumni engaged. State schools have historically lagged behind and missed out on harnessing the crucial experience and talent former students can offer.

Actress Julie Walters, who backs Future First’s campaign, is right when she says the world of work is a difficult and challenging place.

The more help students have in broadening their jobs horizons and navigating the challenging transition from the classroom to work, the better.

We know that hearing from alumni can transform students’ motivation to succeed. Our research shows 82 per cent of students attending a Future First-led alumni session say they are inspired to work harder in school now. They come away with a better understanding of the real-life application of their studies, while the personal stories of alumni encourage them to be more ambitious and confident about what they can do in the future.

The ways in which alumni can volunteer alongside teaching and careers staff in school to encourage aspiration are varied, with schools targeting areas of individual need.

Future First already enables more than 400 state schools and colleges across the UK to work with their alumni to enrich lessons and inspire current students.

At St Richards in East Sussex, former students return to run mock interviews with year 12 students ahead of university applications.

At Bodmin College in Cornwall, “where are you now” profiles line the corridors to inspire students as they walk to their lessons.

At Dinnington High School in Sheffield, alumni return to speak to 14-year-olds about their GCSE options, helping students understand how the subjects they are choosing relate to the world of work.

Alumni can offer support from afar too. Former students send advice to students who are about to leave school, offer online mentoring and hold Skype talks from around the world.

At St Anne’s School in Southampton, a former student is providing online mentoring to a prospective medical student who has been concerned about her exams.

At Tiverton High School in Devon, a former student based in the Netherlands taught an A level geography lesson on international labour markets through Skype.

And alumni knowledge of the school and the community they are in makes them ideally placed to contribute to other areas of school life, as governors, fundraisers and donors, for example. Robert Clack School in Dagenham raises money for university trips across the country with the help of its alumni network.

And one school helped fill its new library by asking each of its alumni to donate a new copy of a book they had enjoyed. In fact, our research shows there is £100 million in untapped donations from alumni which schools could use to support students.

We want more schools and colleges to harness the wealth of experience of their alumni, in turn helping to drive more ambitious thinking about students’ expectations of work in the modern world.

It really is very simple. If teenagers see people like them have succeeded, they are more likely to believe they can too. They work harder and have higher expectations of success.

At Future First, we are passionate about the value that alumni can bring to schools and young people. We want all schools to see the benefits of using their alumni as a powerful resource to help their young people succeed.

  • Christine Gilbert is executive chair of the charity Future First.

Further information

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