Future First CEO Matt Lent is new into post, but already has some big plans for the charity. He tells David Adams why alumni are so important to the education of others, and why partnerships will form a big part of the organisation’s future strategy.
Matt Lent doesn’t remember school particularly fondly. He grew up in north London during the 1980s, but is reluctant to reveal which secondary school he attended, in part because he believes it is now a very different establishment. While he was a pupil, he recalls, the school was “pretty authoritarian and very academically focused – and I guess that approach didn’t work for me”.
Instead of dedicating himself to homework, he found another outlet, attending, then volunteering for, local youth groups. This became the first step in a varied and impressive career. Today he is the newly installed (in January 2018) chief executive of Future First, a charity that helps state schools and colleges create alumni networks.
Independent schools have benefitted from the support of their alumni for many years, but most state schools barely use what can be an enormously valuable source of support and inspiration for current students. Arguably the most important way alumni networks support current students is by providing relatable role models and signposting routes into possible careers, thereby helping to improve social mobility.
Engaging with young people
If there has been a common theme in Lent’s career, it has been an attempt to help schools and other organisations engage with young people more effectively. After working for various youth organisations in the UK and then in New Zealand, he returned to the education system himself in the early 90s to study for a Diploma of Higher Education and then a degree in Youth and Community Studies at the University of Derby.
Following graduation he worked for a number of different organisations, gradually building up frontline, administrative and strategic experience. In 2004 he was appointed director of operations at School Councils UK, which worked across the whole education sector to promote school councils as a means of improving equality and inclusion. He is proud of the fact that by the time he left in 2008 the concept was in use in some form within the vast majority of schools in the UK.
Subsequent roles have included working for the consultancy Crelos to help underachieving gifted students from deprived backgrounds; developing conflict resolution and leadership courses for the youth charity Leap; and launching a social enterprise, Treetop Training and Education, delivering personal and professional training, consultancy and project management to not-for-profit organisations.
During the first half of the current decade he worked for London Youth, while also leading the delivery of the ThinkForward programme in North and East London, supporting teenagers at high risk of becoming NEETs (not in education, employment or training). As part of the latter role he also helped to deliver the first youth-facing Social Impact Bond, in partnership with Impetus PEF and Big Society Capital. He then spent two years as director of partnerships and policy for UK Youth, helping young people aged between nine and 25 engage in education, volunteering, training and employment opportunities.
A new strategy
Lent says his brief at Future First includes developing a new strategy for increasing the reach of the organisation. Its primary role is to spread the message about the value of alumni networks. “About a quarter of schools engage with ex-students in some way,” he says. “How do we drive that up? Independent schools do this very well, state schools don’t, or don’t do anything like as much of it as they could. It seems so obvious, but it can be difficult.”
Future First helps schools and colleges build their alumni network by providing a secure online platform they can use to collect the contact details of students when they leave, to keep that data up to date and to build up contact with many more people who attended the establishment in the past.
The service offered is tailored to suit each establishment, but it always includes the support of an alumni officer to help contact past students, to plan initial activities and start to embed the programme and network in the life of the school or college.
It can then be used to run events and workshops that bring alumni and current students together. They may take part in events related to specific parts of the curriculum, such as the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects; or they may participate in career fair-type events. There have been numerous examples of alumni helping current students to access some fantastic work experience opportunities, at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London, for example. Students can also be mentored by alumni who have been through the process of applying for top universities, or for medical school.
At the heart of all of these networks’ activities is the idea that pupils meet someone who was once being educated at their school or college and has gone on to establish themselves in a successful career. “Suddenly you see students’ eyes open,” says Lent. “They think: ‘if they can do it, I can do it’. That’s the key message.”
Future First claims that 100 per cent of school staff who have used the service to bring alumni back to speak to current students report an uplift in students’ motivation in their studies. More than nine out of ten say these activities help improve students’ confidence and their knowledge of educational and career pathways.
“There’s immediate benefits created by the service: building resource, engaging with the community and creating a legacy for young people; and there are long-term opportunities around how schools work with local communities to have positive role models and mentors; and to build social capital,” says Lent.
The network also benefits from partnerships Future First has formed with a wide range of organisations, including SSAT, The Careers and Enterprise Company, the Commercial Education Trust, Teach First, KPMG, UBS, the Institute of Grocery Distribution and the Esmee Fairburn Foundation.
A “healthy place”
The Future First network is now nine years old and includes over 400 schools in England and Wales. The small team Lent leads in London is complemented by individuals based in Manchester and in south-west England; and by a board of trustees chaired by former Ofsted chief inspector (and former headteacher) Christine Gilbert.
“The organisation is in a really healthy place,” says Lent. “The systems and processes here are amazing, the staff team are incredibly talented and committed and there’s a clear vision on the board. I’m privileged to be taking on the leadership of this organisation at this time.” Just a few weeks into the role, he admits he doesn’t yet have a very clear idea of exactly what the future strategy will look like, but it will involve more partnerships with other external funders; and perhaps some diversification in partnership with other youth service providers.
Lent is very much aware of the financial pressures affecting schools and colleges, but argues that this makes the services and additional support that third sector organisations can offer these organisations and their students even more important.
Asked which of the many other organisations working in this part of the sector he admires, besides those for which he has already worked, he picks out The Brilliant Club and the Access Project, both of which seek to increase the number of children from under-represented backgrounds who win places at the most selective universities. He is also a fan of Teens and Toddlers, which gives teenagers the responsibility to act as role models for young children.
But ultimately, says Lent, the task of helping the next generation to achieve their full potential is not just a job for parents, teachers and policymakers – it should be a goal for the whole of society. “It’s about helping young people to understand the relevance of education,” he says. “How do we support them so that they can see what might be possible?”
Lent urges readers to go to the Future First website and register as someone willing to go back to their old school, adding that one should never assume students won’t be interested in your achievements. “You don’t need to have become a CEO for your experience to be of value,” he says. “What schools want is for someone to say ‘I may not be an astronaut or an MP, but I’m well-established on a career path’,” he says. “It doesn’t really have to be glamorous to be inspiring.”