Alex Shapland-Howes: You can be a role model to your old school

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NINETEEN PRIME Ministers. Archbishop of Canterbury. Mayor of London. When the latest cohort of students had their first day at Eton this September, they will know that their predecessors have succeeded in every field. They will know that there is no limit to what “people like them” can achieve.

Unfortunately, many other young people unwittingly place limits on their capabilities and ambitions based on the role models that they see around them – building their expectation around what they believe people from their background, their area and their school have gone on to achieve.

More than 10 million British people in jobs say that they would be prepared to go and give back to their old school, if they were asked. Eton asks. So does Westminster. So does Cheltenham Ladies College. With a fraction of the budget and a host of other demands on their time, state schools have rarely done so historically. More than 40 per cent of private school graduates say that they hear from their school at least once per year, compared with just three per cent of state school graduates.

Future First is working to change that by helping state schools and colleges build networks of former students who can act as these relatable role models – showing young people that “people like them” go on to a huge range of pathways.

The charity already works with nearly 400 state schools across Britain – including Laisterdyke Business and Enterprise College in Bradford Ecclesfield School in Sheffield, Thomas Rotherham College and Dinnington Comprehensive School in Rotherham – to enable schools to harness the talents of alumni to motivate current students to academic success and career confidence.

Some of those schools are inviting back their former students as part of Future First’s national campaign, Back to School Week, which aims to encourage everyone nationwide to give back to their old state school or college. There are many ways in which they can help – career role models, work experience providers, mentors, governors, fundraisers and donors.

Everyone has talents and skills they can share with current students. Future First’s alumni include those in the professions – medicine, law and banking – but also plumbers, caterers, photographers and web developers. Nearly 90,000 everyday heroes across the UK have signed up with Future First to support their old state school.

Each and every one of them is valuable because they understand the lives of current students. They may have had the same teachers, kicked a ball in the same park or grown up in the same streets. And if current students see someone like them has gone on to succeed, they are more likely to believe they can too.

But an absence of those role models can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies amongst young people.

For some students, want of ambition and even self-belief is not the problem. With half of the poorest students reporting that they don’t even know anyone in a job that they want to do, it is the lack of the knowledge that comes from exposure to individuals in careers.

Alumni have a huge role to play in supporting the work of teachers and professional careers advisors. We know teachers are busy and don’t always have the exposure to the working world students want to learn about.

As a former Maths teacher at a state secondary, I tried my best to equip my students with knowledge about universities and the working world, but I was limited both by time and my own experience.

Private schools and universities know that. They’ve utilised the talents of their alumni for generations, enabling students to benefit from that “old boys network”. Now state schools are doing the same to help reverse statistics that show that 44 per cent of state school alumni feel that people from their school are successful, compared with 81 per cent of private school alumni.

That can change. In their communities of former students, each school has a willing supply of relatable volunteers who are ready and willing to share their knowledge with current students, as well as working to challenge the stereotypes about what people from their communities can achieve.

So join Back to School Week and make a difference to your old school by signing up today. To get involved visit

Alex Shapland-Howes is managing director of Future First which works to increase social mobility by building alumni communities around state schools.