Ten years ago, a former student of William Ellis School in Camden had a brainwave. It might be helpful, he thought, if he went back and chatted to current students about his career and managing that tricky transition from school to working life.
Immediately he hit a problem. There was no organised way to help former students return to the classroom to offer support or career guidance to people at their old state school. That former student was Jake Hayman and he and other schoolmates solved the difficulty by setting up an alumni group across five schools in North London. He called it Future First.
A decade later, that fledgling group has blossomed into a leading education charity which has worked across a thousand state schools and colleges across the UK and has 250,000 former students signed up, all eager to go back to their old classrooms, broaden current students’ jobs horizons and help give them the confidence and knowledge to achieve their dream jobs.
As its longest serving employee, I’ve watched the charity grow. In 2012, I was tiring of years working in national TV and newspapers and looking to do something different. I’d been interested in education as a Mum of three and noticed an ad to run assemblies for Future First, which had just won a government grant to roll out its programme more widely.
That job wasn’t for me, but I was intrigued. No-one seemed to have heard of the fantastic support that Future First offered and, as a nosy journalist, I blagged my way into a meeting with Jake. An hour later, we’d had a cup of tea, a good chat and I’d become Future First’s Press Officer.
In those early days, the charity was based in offices in Islington with grilles across the windows and where precipitous steps to the cellar meeting rooms were a dangerous challenge. But that didn’t deter the team. With typical gusto, they set to, establishing networks in more and more state schools across the UK and growing the charity.
We partnered with the government’s Careers and Enterprise Company, which works in areas of low social mobility. We won celebrity endorsement – Julie Walters, Stephen Fry, Nick Grimshaw. The alumni network mushroomed. We featured in national newspapers, on TV and radio and in nearly every major regional paper in the country.
As the name Future First became more widely known, people began to see the transformative effect alumni acting as relatable role models have on students’ motivation and confidence. I saw it myself when I walked back through the doors of my former London school to talk to current students. I’d had the same background. I’d sat in the same classroom. Played netball on the same courts. Today’s students recognised what we had in common. If I’d achieved a fulfilling career, why shouldn’t they too?
Meanwhile alumni signed up in their thousands, from professionals in medicine, law and finance to plumbers, photographers, caterers. We even had a circus performer. We welcomed them all because each has skills and experience to offer.
The former Ofsted Chief Inspector Christine Gilbert came on board, she’s still chair of our trustees, we outgrew our cramped Islington offices and moved to larger ones in Hammersmith.
Our staff were clocking up miles all round the country now as schools began to harness the untapped resource alumni offer. We opened new offices in the South West and in the North. We ran campaigns backed by The i newspaper – famous names like Fiona Bruce, Ed Miliband and Schools Minister Nick Gibb went back to their former schools as part of our successful annual back to School Week campaigns. Magazines like the Mail on Sunday’s You magazine featured our work.
Eventually we had to move again, this time to our present home in the City of London.
And still we didn’t stop. Secondary schools found our work so valuable, we extended it to primaries, introducing children early to the working world. We partnered with leading companies like lawyers Taylor Wessing and accountants KPMG to run insight days for students interested in pursuing those professions and offering the companies a more diverse entry pipeline.
Until this month, we mark our 10th birthday.
Looking back on those frantic early days, when money was tight and staff frazzled, I wonder if Jake ever thought we’d be leading a movement of alumni engagement in the state sector. We all certainly knew it was a good idea, just not how good.
So as we stop – just for a few hours to draw breath – I wonder what the next ten years will bring for Future First and what Future First will bring for state students worrying about what job they will do.
But we won’t pause for long. There’s work to do. Off we’ll go again, whizzing up and down the country, improving students confidence, motivation and life chances, proving to them that anyone can succeed in a career of their choice, regardless of their background.
Feeling inspired? Sign up to volunteer and support your old school or college.