Time to celebrate

A school anniversary is the ideal opportunity to reconnect with former pupils and ask for their support, says Jane Hughes

Whether your school is approaching a tenth anniversary or a centenary, it’s worth bringing out the bunting and making a fuss. Every school has a potential hinterland of hundreds of ex-pupils who would jump at the chance of reuniting with former classmates at a celebration event. Moreover, alumni – whether they were students 20, 40 or even 50 years ago – often feel a sense of gratitude and allegiance to their former school and could be at a point in life where they feel able to give something back. So capitalise on the opportunities for celebration and let your alumni know you need their support.

For Nikki Wyman, assistant head and former pupil (1967-73) at Engayne Primary School in Upminster, Essex, the school’s 60th anniversary presented a golden opportunity to reach out to alumni. ‘We realised after our 50th anniversary that we had missed the chance to reconnect with former pupils who might want to support us. As the 60th year approached, we had emails from ex-pupils and staff asking what we were doing to mark the occasion, so we decided to act.’

The result is Alumni 60 – an ambitious fundraising project led by Nikki Wyman, with the support of other ex-pupils, including three teachers, a dinner lady and members of office and site staff. The plan is to create a legacy in the form of a learning-through-play garden. And, as the 60th intake begin their first year at Engayne, the amount already raised through a DonateMySchool campaign has reached £2,500.

‘It’s about contacting people at the right time and in the right way,’ says Nikki Wyman. ‘A lot of locals have fond memories of the school, but many of the older generation don’t use social media. We’ve approached residents’ associations, distributed leaflets and put ads in the local paper, as well as using Facebook, emails and mailshots. That’s allowed us to gather support and memorabilia from across the generations, and we’ll be displaying the memorabilia at an alumni open evening to encourage people to reminisce.’

Two secondary schools that held 60th anniversary events this autumn were Chosen Hill, an academy of 1,400 pupils in Churchdown, Gloucestershire, and Imberhorne School (1,650 pupils) in East Grinstead, West Sussex. At Chosen Hill, the idea was to bring together alumni and current pupils and parents at a celebration event that everyone would enjoy, says SBM Debbie Wardlaw, who worked alongside head of history Charlotte Fishlock to contact alumni and organise the event.

‘The PTA felt the anniversary was a great opportunity to build future support for the school,’ she says. ‘We started getting in touch with former students some months ago and put a 60th anniversary tab on the school website, with links to the event. We also created a dedicated page where alumni could post and share their photographs and stories, and a sponsorship section where they could register their support. We sold 500 tickets (at £3 each) for the event, and – even with children attending for free – we raised about £2,000. It was a lovely day and quite emotional at times to see people reconnecting with old friends. We had two ladies in their 60s who hadn’t met since school but who instantly recognised each other! The feedback has been very positive and we’ve built some important links for the future.’

Charlotte Fishlock concurs, noting that Chosen Hill received emails from alumni in locations as far flung as Malaysia, who couldn’t make the event but were keen to help their former school. ‘I think it’s interesting for people to see how much the school has changed – from grammar to technical school to academy – and what has been achieved. We’re also able to share the successes of our past students to inspire our current intake and we’re developing a “wish list” to send to those who have asked how they can support us.’

At Imberhorne School, the anniversary event entitled ‘Dancing through the Decades’ was very much aimed at reconnecting with alumni and marketed as a grand reunion. Staged in a marquee on the school playing fields, it attracted 360 former students and staff and – although not intended as a fundraiser – did raise £3,064. As fundraising and partnerships manager Nikki Burch confirms, the foundations for a broader support network are now in place, with overwhelmingly positive feedback from the day itself.

In Essex, fundraising manager Lucy Lock says plans for the 2020 centenary celebrations at Westcliff High School for Girls (WHSG) are well underway. ‘My focus has very much been on building relationships with alumni so that the centenary acts as the catalyst to increase long-term support for the school. People – including many of the parents of our new Year 7s who were former pupils themselves – are very excited about getting involved. It is just a question of tapping into this goodwill and asking them for help at the appropriate time.’

While WHSG has long had an ‘Old Girls’ association, numbers attending its annual luncheons have dwindled as it struggled to attract younger members. The centenary is the ideal time for a relaunch that will target as many generations as possible, says Lucy Lock. ‘We’ve invested in a new database for past pupils and hope to create an alumni community that will communicate through dedicated pages on the school website. In addition, we’re planning a programme of events of which the highlight will be a ball in May and a joint garden party with the neighbouring boys’ school (which is also celebrating its centenary).’

Old Girl and local historian Judith Williams will be writing a book featuring memorabilia and stories from alumni, and the school will be running ‘teas and tours’ throughout the year. Lucy Lock also plans to use a photograph of current pupils standing in a 100 formation on the school fields as a key image across her publicity. ‘A high proportion of our ex-students still live locally although many may not have stepped into the school for years,’ she says. ‘We hope that coming back will inspire them to support us, whether financially or by giving their time, perhaps with careers talks for sixth formers. And if we are clear about what essential things we are fundraising for, they will hopefully realise the importance of getting involved.’

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