Notable alumni are not typical alumni. It’s the other 99.9% that reveal what the school is truly about.
Browsing a school website you’ve probably come across a notable alumni page. It’s a list of people who attended the school at some time in the past and have achieved some kind of notoriety. The longer the list and the more famous the alumni, the more impressive it is.
Yes it’s a fun list in the “did you know?” vein but it is also there for a serious marketing purpose.
A school is selling dreams; dreams of pupils’ potentials fulfilled. How better to show it than to point to those who’ve been there, done that and triumphed as a result? What the school is telling you is “send your child here, and we can turn him/her into someone like this.” The more subtle implication is that if you don’t send your child to the school, they won’t be as successful as the people on the list and they’ll never be one of the notable alumni.
Selling the dream but caveat emptor
The problem with selling a dream of a pupil’s potential fulfilled is that the nature of the potential is often yet to be discovered when a pupil joins the school. So the school has to present a broad array of talents among the pupils and alumni to appeal to everyone. That’s why schools can be quick to claim credit where credit’s not due. Often sporting or artistic achievements aren’t necessarily down to any teaching at the school.
Among current pupils it’s harder to check, but it’s relatively easy for alumni. You can forgive a bit of poetic licence; Yes that notable nuclear physicist did take their physics A Level here, but as for nurturing that Olympic fencing alumnus, check the fencing salle. And don’t be afraid to ask “How exactly did you prepare the notable alumnus for a career in stand-up comedy?”
If a celebrity went here, it must be a good school
You peruse the notable alumni list of sports people, politicians, military personnel, artists and dream of what your child might become if they came to this school. You casually share your aspirations with a friend who, horror upon horrors, reveals that her school has a similar list, and that she knows of several others. Quickly you rethink your school choice based on which celebrity alumnus you admire more; the one who went to her school or yours.
These are the kind of people we produce at the school, not those
I looked at my old school’s notable alumni list for names of people in my year. There was no one. Strange, I thought. I spent seven formative years at that school as did my contemporaries and yet we don’t represent something the school considers marketable, it would seem. Were we a lost generation – a dip in performance that the school doesn’t like to talk about? Are we not the kind of people the school produces?
Of course we are. Collectively, we, our school contemporaries, and all alumni are far more indicative of the kind of person our school produces than that Brigadier General and the international sports star on the alumni list. Albeit slightly less eye catching.
How a school can produce more notable alumni
Schools celebrate notable alumni as shining examples of their education; the successful ones. But have you noticed how many have distinguished themselves in fields outside the curriculum? In the arts or sport for example. And yet pupils spend 80-90% of time at school doing academic stuff, within the curriculum.
If the school were truly successful then the careers of the alumni should reflect what they were taught. So, the alumni list would comprise 50% those who have excelled in careers in maths and English, 10% scientists and, er, 5% geographers.
It’s almost as though the notable alumni have slipped the net, and are successful despite the school wasting their time with academic pursuits. So why not spend more time on those activities that bring recognition and respect? Flip the curriculum so that it’s only 10-20% academic and 80% arts and sport and hey presto, the school will produce more notable alumni to celebrate.
Ask about the not so notable alumni
But, you say, that’s not the point. The school has to provide a rounded education and transferable skills. And in any case not everyone has the talent to be a sports star.
Agreed. So, let’s also celebrate the achievement of everyone else; not just the skiver who spent all their time playing sport. Let’s at least recognise those who absorbed the character of their school, teachers and contemporaries and sweated through their exams.
How about a notable alumni page that shows us what everyone else did; a more accurate representation of the products of the school’s education? Because when you’re choosing a school for your child knowing that 50% of alumni became middle managers in pension fund administration tells you much more about the kind of people the school produces.