At the beginning of February, more than 400 schools up and down the country welcomed back hundreds of former students. Caterers, doctors, electricians, lawyers, plumbers, politicians, zoo assistants and many more went back to their old schools to speak to current students. Back to School Week is a national campaign organised each year by the charity Future First to celebrate the activities of alumni in many state schools and highlight their value to a wider audience – a value that extends way beyond one week a year.
Independent schools have long understood the potential of their alumni. They work hard at keeping in touch with former students and at harnessing their talents, skills and experiences. They keep them up to date with their old school and use them as contributors to a range of school activities and as supporters – and donors – for special projects.
Now, state schools are beginning to see the value of building thriving alumni networks,too. They are not doing this for money – though one school resourced its new library by asking each of their alumni to donate a book they had enjoyed or admired. They are doing it to inspire, motivate and build the confidence of their current students.
Polling by YouGov found that 45% young people on free school meals didn’t know anyone in a job they would like to do. Over half of these did not believe that ‘people like me’ are successful in life. Young people need to believe in themselves if they are to persuade anyone else to believe in them too. This same poll found there are over 10 million adults in the UK who would go back to their state school or college if asked. So let’s ask them!
Teachers working with Future First tell us that the biggest strength of alumni is as role models for students. It is relatability that gives them immediate impact. They have grown up in the same area, sat in the same classrooms and often had the same teachers. This is why one of the first things we do in helping schools establish alumni networks is to set up a system that captures each of their current leavers. This begins to give them a ready source of alumni that is added to each year.
Alumni come with different experiences of life after school and their personal stories highlight success but also the difficulties they had on the way. They offer insights and connections. Work in the modern world suddenly becomes real and within the grasp of current students. Their expectations about what students from their school can achieve are given a boost.
We see the state schools that we work with use alumni to inspire and motivate students in a variety of ways. For example, they might use them as one-to-one mentors, as part of a small group intervention programme in which alumni develop students’ confidence and skills, or in an assembly where former students can showcase their journey post school. At a school in Derby, students heard from both an apprentice and a university student about the pros and cons of the routes they had taken.
Many schools use alumni to bring careers education to life. They use them at key transition points at 14+ and 16+, or to provide practical insights into working life through facilitating shadowing opportunities or placements. Alumni are widely used to help students perform better at interviews for jobs or university by offering practical advice on the selection process and by giving time for running through practice interviews.
We are seeing alumni used in classrooms more often, sometimes sharing the teaching with the teacher. For instance, we saw a renal specialist support ‘A’ Level Biology and an entrepreneur help students prepare students for an assessment on business communication.
Spread the word
Alumni work with schools in other ways too. They might volunteer to coach a football team, run an after school club or even design a new building. They are well placed for the role of school governor, too, combining knowledge of the local community with the experience and skills gained since leaving school.
Future First is passionate about the difference alumni make. 80% of young people who attend events with alumni say that meeting former students makes them more confident about succeeding in the world of work. 75% say it showed them that ‘people like me’ do succeed in life. The same percentage said it made them want to work harder in school.
Let’s all do what we can in 2016 to encourage more schools to engage their alumni community. It is such a powerful resource, generating not only increases in students’ motivation, confidence and skills, but also their chances of success in life beyond school.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christine Gilbert is executive chair at Future First.