'You could have a job like mine': How successful alumni can inspire pupils

Hilary Wilce sees an innovative scheme in action at a London comprehensive

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The Independent Online

In the sports hall of a north London comprehensive, Deji Davies, sharp-looking in his banker's suit, is standing in front of an audience of 11- and 12-year-olds explaining what he does for a living. "I work as a trader. In trading you buy and sell things, and what I buy and sell is company debt." But he is also standing in the forefront of a potential revolution in how state schools can tap into their alumni – and grow stronger and prouder as a result.

Four years ago, a new organisation, Future First, was launched to help schools bring in former students as inspiring role models for existing ones. Social mobility is pitifully low in this country and a national survey done for the organisation showed that nearly half of the poorest pupils don't know anyone in a job they would like to do.

Future First knew that young people needed to see and hear about jobs, if they were to believe that opportunities could be open to them. And they needed to hear about them in a fun and accessible way, from people like them, who had gone to their schools.

But the vision of founder Jake Hayman, 29, goes further. He wants state schools to become as effective as private schools in building alumni networks, convincing pupils to aim high, and creating confident, vibrant communities that students and former students alike are proud to be part of.

Both the demand and the will seem to there. Future First has doubled in size every year since it started. And two YouGov polls it commissioned show that 10 million people would be willing to give time to their old school, if asked, as well as £100m in donations. Jake Hayman, an entrepreneurial social investment consultant, is impatient to use that time and money for the benefit of students.

But back in the sports hall of Acland Burghley School, in Tufnell Park, this is already happening, as Deji Davies outlines the skills he needs for his job at JP Morgan. "I have to be good with numbers, think quickly on my feet and be good with people." The year seven pupils listen closely, knowing that not so many years ago, this high-flyer was a boy from a local estate, sitting cross-legged, like them, in this same hall.

Four other former pupils also explain their careers. Jack Stevens, a musician, studied for a music degree and now teaches, runs workshops, does mixes and plays live gigs. "I'm my own boss and I get paid for doing something I love." Aliya Young, a film and television lawyer, outlines how she studied English at university before taking legal training and now spends her time "writing, talking to people, arguing different points and then agreeing them".

Kate Zamira Mummery, a dancer, says, "I teach, choreograph and perform. One day I might be rehearsing in a war bunker in Greenwich, another day I might be performing in France." Joe Tuson, another banker, outlines how he advises wealthy clients, from "little old grannies with lots of money" to companies and institutions.

"So you see," says Talia Beni-Randall, senior programme officer with Future First, who is moderating the assembly, "although both Deji and Joe work in banking, their jobs are completely different. You can have lots of different kinds of jobs in the same area."

Later the alumni – all 30-year-olds from the same year at school – work with small groups explaining how you need maths to work out your taxes, and good people skills to talk to the people you meet. "So all the things you are learning here," says Jack Stevens, "really do benefit you later, even if you don't see the relevance at the time."

All this is part of a long-term programme of assemblies and workshops. Older pupils have been helped with interview skills and work shadowing, and now the programme is reaching down to younger students, who will be involved in work-related events throughout their time at school.

"It's going really well," says year 11 head Oli Hamdi. "Last year we had someone in who ran his own eco-travel agency. They were fascinated. What we want to do is get kids thinking about what skills are useful, and what skills they are going to need. Because a lot of them will get to the point where they'll be saying to us: 'Show me why I should stay in school'."

Last year, the school got its best-ever GCSE results, and Oli Hamdi is convinced that the input of Future First was a major factor. The organisation sprang out of the distinctive social mix of north London, where children from privileged, liberal families attend the same comprehensives as poor, inner-city pupils, and was launched using the friends of Hayman, who went to William Ellis School, in Parliament Hill.

"I was talking with a friend about what massive debts we owed our schools, and how we could help present-day pupils," he says. Role models seemed one answer, "so we just started up". It began in six Camden schools, but has since spread to schools in east and west London, and East Anglia.

It helps schools identify alumni, train them, and bring them in to workshops and assemblies. It also works with local companies to open up work-experience placements.

The organisation gets grant backing and generates income from training and consultancy in the private sector to subsidise its work in schools. For between £6,000 and £8,000 it will build a school's network, identify 40 former students willing to be involved, organise interviews and training, build a website than will allow pupils to browse through alumni's careers, and organise eight events in the school.

It is also developing a smaller scale service which, for a couple of hundred pounds, will enable schools to collect and manage data on all their school leavers, allowing them to tap into a large and ever-growing pool of potential volunteers, mentors, school governors, funders and speakers.

"We aim to have a thousand of these in schools in the next three years," says Jake Hayman, "which is a third of the whole sector of state secondary schools."

And everyone seems to benefit from the formula. "I was really lucky to have people around me when I was young to help me know what was out there," says Aliya Young. "But a lot of people don't have that so it's good to be able to give them ideas of jobs. I've done it twice now and really enjoyed it."

And the young students say they have learned a lot. "Focus," says 12-year-old Tyrone Canlas-Arce, "that's what it showed me. If you focus you can do anything. A lot of the youth today think school is rubbish, but this showed that you need school to give you the skills that you need for a job."