Making connections

20th April 2012 at 01:00
Once the preserve of the elite, `old-boy networks' are coming to state schools

The "Old-school-tie network" has long been portrayed as the reason for the privately educated scooping top jobs in industry, government and the media.

Indeed, it is accepted by many that state-educated young people, bristling with qualifications but poorly connected, have to work twice as hard to penetrate the upper echelons of many sectors. The make-up of the shadow Cabinet serves as just one example - more than 50 per cent attended independent schools.

But now a charity wants to turn things around by using technology to help state schools create alumni networks to match those at elite institutions such as Eton College, which has educated 19 British prime ministers, including David Cameron.

Future First has just been awarded half a million pounds in grants to roll out its scheme to 500 schools around the country. The initiative combines a database with email, text and social networking websites to allow schools to keep in touch with ex-pupils. Schools can then contact alumni later in life and recruit them as pupil mentors or school governors and invite them to give careers talks or even become donors and fund- raisers.

The scheme could also create networks to help pupils arrange work experience and work-shadowing opportunities - one of the ways privately educated and well-connected young people can get a leg-up in their careers.

The news that the charity is expanding its reach comes amid a controversial government shake-up of careers education, which critics have claimed could leave many young people without access to appropriate careers advice.

Jake Hayman, the founder of Future First - who also runs a private company advising big business on philanthropic giving - said that the idea for the project emerged in 2008 on a visit to his old comprehensive, William Ellis School in Kentish Town, North London.

"I went back with a group of friends to give talks about our jobs and it got us talking about what was missing from our own school experiences," he said. "It occurred to us that although the school had many brilliant people coming out of it, it didn't have the networks around it to enable them to make the most of those people.

"State schools have traditionally been far behind private schools in making use of alumni networks, but this project will actually put them way out in front."

A successful pilot in 17 London schools led to funding of pound;250,000 being offered by the Cabinet Office through its Social Action Fund. Harry Fletcher-Wood, head of continuing education at Kingsmead School in Enfield, said that involvement in the scheme relieved the school of a lot of the "legwork" of keeping in touch with alumni and linking them with current pupils.

"Bringing back former students helps pupils see what they can realistically achieve and nudges them into working a bit harder to get there," he said.

Future First has also received grants worth a further pound;250,000, including a donation from ZING, a charity that aims to solve social problems through technology. It is hoped that the scheme will eventually finance itself from school subscriptions of no more than pound;500 a year. The charity hopes to sign up 100,000 former pupils within 18 months.

Tony Watts, visiting professor in career development at the University of Derby, said that the programme is "a terrific enhancement" for schools, but warned that it "could not be a substitute for a proper programme of careers guidance".


Pupils at schools taking part in the Future First initiative are able to find former students in careers they are considering and ask them questions on a dedicated web page.

Future First sends out professional interviewers to talk to schools' alumni and write a profile of that person and their job for the website.

Pupils can then search for alumni who have taken a career path they are interested in and write to them.

The service allows pupils to find out everything from what a job is like to the qualifications they should work towards.


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