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New adult careers and education advice centres have been given a clean bill of health in their first inspection.

The Adult Learning Inspectorate rated the next-step service in the west of England as good and said it helped adults return to education and get jobs.

"There are good improvements in clients' self-confidence and self-esteem," the inspectors wrote. "Most develop a clearer idea of the options available to them."

The nextstep service was founded by the Learning and Skills Council in August 2004 to advice people aged 20 and over on everything from improving literacy to boosting their job prospects.

The LSC claims that the advice centres helped more than four million people in its first year, with 380,000 of them achieving level 2 (GCSE-equivalent)

qualifications - the minimum required by many employers. In the west of England, where nextstep is run by the Connexions partnership, inspectors praised its results: 61 per cent of people with qualifications below level 2 who received advice have either started a course or a job.

Levels of employment and qualifications are higher in the west of England, however. Only 3.9 per cent of adults are unemployed, compared to 4.8 per cent nationally, and just under 21 per cent lack level 2 qualifications, compared to 24 per cent elsewhere.

Inspectors also said that nextstep was successful in reaching people in remote areas. Advice sessions were generally satisfactory, but some were rushed.

Action plans lacked detail and were sometimes illegible, however, while some advisers did not know how to properly assess literacy and numeracy skills.

People attending the advice service said they liked the support given, the increased confidence they gained and access to computers. But they wanted more privacy during their interviews and thought tmore information about the service should be available .

The inspectors said the service had potential for improvement and should focus on the clients' action plans, address equality of opportunity and improve advisers' skills in dealing with literacy and numeracy problems.

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