State schools have powerful networks too

October 11, 2012 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

This guest blog is from RSA Intern Temitayo Ogunye, who is working the RSA Education Team on developing enrichment opportunities for RSA Academies.

Having access to useful networks matters and it is about time we let state school kids know it.

Over a year ago, I wrote an article in which I recorded my experience of graduating from my undergraduate degree at the height of the recession and slowly coming to recognise the central importance of contacts and networks when it comes to getting jobs and making your way in the world. There, I argued that one of the fundamental differences between young people who went to private school and those who went to state school is not simply that the former tend to have greater access to useful contacts and networks than the latter, but also the fact that they tend to be more aware of the fact that networks and contacts matter in the first place. I went on to explain that I am working to build an alumni community at my old state school as a way of helping to address this problem. Where else better is there to start than with a community that does so much to shape young people and is, in a sense, ready formed?

The idea runs as follows. The nature of this particular inequality between state and privately educated people is not wholly or even essentially material, but instead about culture and connections. State school kids tend not to have as many useful contacts as their privately educated counterparts and, even if they do, they often don’t realise how important they are. And even if they do happen recognise the importance of contacts, they are often not very savvy or practiced when it comes to using or making them. Recent RSA research on the importance of social capital helps to substantiate many of these points.

An alumni community for state school students would inspire young people by showing them the great things that people from their school have done, and provide opportunities for them by creating the conditions within which useful connections can be made and enriching experiences can be had. It would provide role models that the young people at state schools can more easily relate to and give them a sense that there are valuable resources within their own community. At the same time, an alumni community that produces benefits for its members would introduce state school kids to the simple truth that networks and contacts matter a lot; learning – as I did – few months into frustrating unemployment after graduating with a good degree from a good university simply isn’t good enough.

(To be honest, if I was writing the article now I would also make the point that the definition of what counts as an enriching experience should change. Why, for example, is a gap year helping poor people in Uganda or Bolivia seen to be more valuable or enriching than a lifetime caring for a sick grandparent or a helping your single mother look after your younger siblings? It is also important to say that not all state schools are the same and building an alumni community might be easier in some than it is in others. Indeed, significant differences in access to useful networks can often occur within state schools – it certainly did in mine.)

Now, there is clearly not much that is new in this idea; private schools and universities have been doing it for centuries, and an organisation that I used to work with called Future First is currently building networks of former students around state schools across the country, with the ambition there being “an alumni community in every school”. I would very much like this kind of thinking on the importance of networks and connections between people to inform the design of the enrichment activities that the RSA builds around its academies.

There is both a challenge and an opportunity here. The challenge is to look to other sources of networks to build around the RSA Academies, possibly as well as former students (Future First actually already work with Lilian Baylis – a member if the RSA Family of Academies). The opportunity relates to the fact that in our 27,000 Fellows we have an extraordinarily successful, enthusiastic, and inspirational network. The perfect place to start, I think.

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