‘Old pals’ network’ to help state pupils at university

17th June 2016 at 01:00
Edinburgh head urges schools to use former pupils to provide career inspiration to current students

STATE Schools should create their own versions of private schools’ “old boys’ networks” to boost the chances of pupils succeeding in higher education and work, a leading headteacher has said.

Steve Ross, of Edinburgh’s Craigroyston Community High, said that schools should develop “old pals’ networks” to offer support to young people long after they leave, in order to prevent them from dropping out of university in particular.

The arrangement would be reciprocal: leavers helped to make a success of university and their careers would become part of a growing formal network of outstanding ex-pupils who would come back to school regularly to inspire the next generation of pupils.

Mr Ross’s school has recently forged many links with businesses – including big names such as Scottish Gas, the Waldorf Astoria hotel and Aberdeen Asset Management – and he said that this had made him appreciate the importance of networking.

Speaking to TESS after he addressed a MacKay Hannah conference on attainment in Edinburgh last week, he said: “Maybe in education we don’t do [networking] well enough. But now I realise that’s how the world works – it’s networks, alliances, friendships and colleagues. Not in a negative old boys’ network way, but by providing support for a young person who needs it.”

As well as cultivating alumni networks, Mr Ross hopes to use business contacts to find mentors who would help Craigroyston leavers throughout university. He has already persuaded one business – luxury tea supplier and restaurant Eteaket – to provide one.

He believes that such mentors would be of particular use where schools have not traditionally sent many leavers to university. As he told last week’s conference, his school covers the part of Edinburgh where Trainspotting was set and, according to official figures, four in five pupils there are in the most deprived group of young people.

Craigroyston – which on Wednesday hosted a Scottish government summit on pupil attainment – has in recent years helped many more pupils apply to university.

‘Welcome them back’

This is thanks partly to an intensive tutoring group for highly able pupils, but Mr Ross fears the risk of students dropping out remains too high. Even just coming across people who dress differently or have more money or confidence could lead to students ditching studies early, said Mr Ross. “And they don’t have that support mechanism or structure that they have in the school,” the headteacher added.

A mentor – from a business related to the student’s degree – would be the main point of contact, but could also direct that student back to their old school.

“If there are any issues, we would welcome them back to chat through them, maybe give a bit of advice,” said Mr Ross.

“My goodness, we go to such lengths to get these young people into university, only for some to drop out over what could be fixed in a conversation in a café with a trusted ally or friend – why wouldn’t you do that?”

As growing numbers of former Craigroyston pupils succeed in university and other “positive destinations” – the school has a strong record of helping leavers into apprenticeships – Mr Ross envisages an ever-expanding pool of expertise for the school to draw on. Ex-pupils would speak at job fairs, but could also be called upon to help struggling pupils.

As Mr Ross put it: “This guy can say, ‘Well, I was there, son.’”

Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said that the idea of developing support networks through alumni had “clear merits” but this sort of project would be “a big challenge” to get up-and-running in the present climate.

He said: “With workload in schools presently at a peak and resources in a trough, I don’t see many places being in a position to find the kind of time such a scheme will need to succeed, unless there is a time and funding commitment from somewhere.” But he added that schools were already doing a lot of work to support pupils as they left school, and social networking sites already made it far easier for past pupils to “self-organise”.

‘Never think of yourself as below anyone’

Steve Ross’ idea of developing “old pals’ networks” is supported by Future First, a UK organisation that aims to increase social mobility by building “alumni communities” around state schools.

Managing director Alex Shapland-Howes said that a YouGov analysis showed that half of pupils who claimed free school meals did not know anyone with a job that they would like to emulate. A school’s ex-pupils, however, were powerful role models who could “bring the curriculum to life” and show disengaged teenagers how school “links to their future”, he said.

Future First often calls upon Serkan Hussein, a medical student, to speak to pupils at Kingsmead School in Enfield, north London, which he used to attend. He had been interested in science as a pupil and received advice from former pupils, including a psychiatrist and a renal doctor, which helped him to find the right university course.

Mr Hussein said: “The best piece of advice I received from alumni was to never think of myself as below anyone just because they might have more experience than me or come from a different background.”

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