We Americans are fairly obsessed with alumni networks. My high school has already begun emailing me about a ten-year reunion... “coming up soon” in 2017. Youth organisations and programmes I’ve participated in also keep in touch regularly, and my brother, who’s recently left university, gets newsletters from his high school, his university, and his college fraternity. My grandparents are still going to reunions 60 years after leaving school.
In the UK, alumni networks seem to have been more the preserve of independent schools, like University College School (UCS) in north London, which I recently visited. After speaking to the UCS leadership team, I’m pretty clear about the benefits of an alumni network for all schools and pupils, though. Here’s why.
Chris Reynolds, UCS’s vice-master (and holder, surely, of one of the world’s best job titles), explained that having a network is evidence of a school living its values.
At UCS, staff are constantly reiterating for pupils the value of people and community, and work hard to create an environment where pupils feel valued and supported. How hollow would that seem, asked Chris, if as soon as pupils left the school the door was slammed shut behind them?
And what about the more concrete benefits to current pupils of old boys and girls keeping in touch? I recently spoke to a science subject leader at a primary school outside Liverpool in which over 65% of pupils are eligible for the pupil premium. He told me about a former pupil who is now voluntarily running an extra-curricular science club for current pupils, while completing her PhD in astrophysics.
“It’s one thing,” he said, “to tell children that they can achieve anything they want. It’s another for them to see that someone like them has already done it, and so they can too. How’s that for closing the gap?”
One of the challenges for schools in creating a network is that they can be expensive: alumni staff, newsletters and networking events all cost money. A survey has shown that 30% of state school alumni questioned would be prepared to donate to their former schools; however, the real bedrock of a strong network is a supportive environment that makes pupils want to stay connected and give something back.
This doesn’t cost extra. Building an environment where pupils feel valued requires teachers who are ambitious for their pupils, pastoral support that is there whenever pupils need it, and values based on respect. State schools already have these in spades.
Elsewhere on Key insights, Jessica Cope looks at improving pupil wellbeing.