29 July 2021

How every young person who went to state school can make a difference to today’s students

By Naomi Barker, Regional Programme Manager

Every pupil should have multiple opportunities to learn from employers about work, employment and the skills that are valued in the workplace – Gatsby benchmark #5 highlights this as one of the eight core measures for good careers provision in schools. At Future First we believe that bringing back former students as alumni volunteers to share their career experience is an integral part of any good school or college careers curriculum. It’s a positive step that the benefits of bringing employer volunteers into the classroom are now much more widely recognised and it’s part of our core programme and offering to highlight the variety of ways alumni can act as volunteers.

In working towards achieving the Gatsby benchmarks, it is easy for schools to assume that all alumni volunteers must be well established in their careers, or even ‘top of their game’, to offer useful support. The benefits of bringing younger alumni volunteers, who may have only just started in their careers, back to the classroom can then be easily overlooked.

Last year, Future First worked with more than 70,000 students and has some 270,000 alumni volunteers signed up to help schools and colleges across the country. Future First’s own statistics suggest there is a keen appetite for volunteering amongst younger alumni. In 2021, 45% of active alumni volunteers were aged 18-25, and research suggests that the effect of near-peer role models can be crucial in building life skills such as confidence and resilience.

Recent school leaver Katie was motivated to give back to her school because “As part of the alumni we’ve gone through similar things, we may even have similar home lives. There’s a resemblance one way or another… It’s all well and good all of these wonderful people coming in and telling the students about the possibilities that are out there but when the students can see someone who has been in their shoes go on and be successful, have a fantastic job and love what they do it’s so much stronger.” 

Katie touches on a salient point here – her experience, and that of younger alumni, holds much more weight for current students because it’s delivered by someone not too distant from them in age or life experience.

But it’s not just in sharing key employability skills like communication, resilience and work ethic where younger alumni can be beneficial. Our recent ‘Bridging the Gap’ pilot project saw Year 6 and Year 9 pupils work together as mentors and mentees with the aim of helping the Year 6s feel ready, knowledgeable and comfortable about their transition up to secondary school. One Year 6 pupil said: “I have really enjoyed getting to know my mentor, she told me what it would be like when I arrived at Secondary school and now it seems less scary than before. I am excited to start.” So we know first-hand that role models can come in all shapes, sizes and ages.

This is the reason our partnership with psychologist and author, Fiona Murden, is such a strong and beneficial one – she helps to throw light on the power of role models, saying: 

“In the same way we tend to think of role models as being infallible we also tend to think of mentors as needing to have been model pupils or to be doing exceptionally well with their careers in order to play that role. But we are more likely to form trusting connections, essential for the natural mechanisms of the brain to work, with people who are similar to us based on characteristics like age, race, gender and ethnic origin. And this is especially true for teenagers. Counter to what we may naturally think of when considering mentors – that may not be someone who was academically brilliant. What’s critical is that teens can see ‘someone like me’ to connect with. And if we train mentors effectively, research shows that the mistakes they made provide an immensely powerful lesson to the mentee.”*

A recent survey of our alumni volunteers found that beyond school staff, 70% did not encounter an inspirational role model when they were at school or college. That’s a statistic Future First wants to change, and this tied with the appetite to volunteer means young people see the benefits of getting involved in supporting their old schools and colleges for themselves as well as for current students. There’s a whole network out there of untapped potential, schools just need to learn how to tap into it and they’d be surprised at the amount of goodwill available.

Nicola Harvey, Careers Lead at Vyners School had this to say: “I’ve found Future First really useful as a resource to support the careers programme at the school. Even when I’m quite specific, there’s usually an alumni volunteer who can speak to the students about the career that has been requested. The mixture of one-to-one interviews that we’ve run, careers talks to the whole year group, more targeted careers talks and workshops in subjects and lessons, have been a really valuable experience that have added massively to our careers programme – I don’t know how we could have done it without the links to Future First” 

Contact us to find out about Future First and how we can support you to involve alumni in the school curriculum and meet the Gatsby Benchmarks.

*Read the full article, The importance of finding ‘someone like me’, by Fiona Murden