16 April 2018

Reducing Early School Leaving in Europe – how can alumni networks tackle key risk factors?

Future First’s Head of Innovation and Development reflects on the importance of relatable role models in the light of new research on reducing early school leaving.

Recently, I was privileged to be able to speak on the panel at ‘Working Futures’, the launch of a five-year international research project, Reducing Early School Leaving in Europe. The scope of the study is vast. Researchers worked with young people, their teachers and other education professionals in no fewer than nine countries. They examined the triggers that lead young people to leave school early – those factors which reduce their life chances, leave them unable to go into work and negative impact their well-being.

An important finding is that traditional criteria for identifying ‘at risk’ students are not enough. ‘By far the largest influence’ on early school leaving comes from two factors: whether students believe they can succeed at school, and the perceived level of support available from their teachers. Believe and perceive being the all-important words.

Making sure students have positive and aspirational self-perceptions is at the heart of what Future First does. We connect former students with their old schools so they can act as role models, mentors, work experience providers or even by supporting teachers in lessons. Alumni give students life changing insight and embody the message ‘one day that could be me’.

81 per cent of the students who have attended our workshops this year said that ‘meeting former students shows that people like me can be successful’. Molly Samuell-Leport left school at 14, but now has an MBE for services to karate and works in politics. She spoke at her old school on International Women’s Day. Afterwards Year 8 student Maariya told her, ‘I just think it’s amazing that someone from my school has gone on to achieve [these] things.’

For some students, it’s about the here and now. Colleen, a student at Neale-Wade Academy who is taking part in one of our flagship aspiration-raising projects, said ‘before these workshops, if a teacher used to shout at me I’d shout back. I used to think it was me against the world. Now I can see that other people have had similar experiences at school but have still done something cool in the future. It’s shown me that I’ll be able to get somewhere too if I put my head down.’

Student voice is at the heart of the Reducing Early School Leaving in Europe project. It found that a students’ attitude to their future is influential in determining their potential pathway ‘well beyond the predictive power of specific demographic and socio-economic characteristics and irrespective of specific school settings’.

And whilst we are working hard to make sure students continue to have worthwhile experiences like these, going forward, the education community has lessons to learn from the research, which the team have made easy with their clear and practical suggestions.

At Future First, we will continue to work with schools to make sure they are selecting the most appropriate students for the interventions they are offering, taking steps to identify those whose beliefs and perceptions could stand in the way of their success. We need to make this easy for them – as the experts we are finding innovative and quicker ways for them to do this.

We will work to ensure that all students we work with understand the importance of their school’s alumni community. Out there is a network of people who they may not have met, but who nevertheless want to support them, for no other reason than they were once sitting in the same seat, wondering about the future too.

Read more about RESL’s research.

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