THE Government looks poised to dismantle the Careers Service. This has happened not by design but by default, in blinkered pursuit of a worthy agenda. Schools, colleges, employers, and young people and parents will all be affected. But few seem aware of what is happening.
The White Paper Learning to Succeed proposed a new Youth Support Service to bring together the Careers Service, parts of the Youth Service, and other specialist agencies. Significantly, the detailed proposals are set out not in the White Paper itself but in the Social Exclusion Unit report Bridging the Gap.
At the moment the Careers Service is a national government agency, while youth work is funded by local authorities. Merging the two makes sense for the unit's target group: young people who have dropped out of education, training and employment, or who are at risk of doing so. The two services must work as a team to help these young people, with support from personal advisers.
But the proposals make no sense for the great majority. The careers and youth services have different skills, cultures, and working methods. Much of the Careers Service's work is with schools and colleges. What most students there want is not "youth support" but high-quality, well-informed guidance about the world of work.
Support for schools and colleges has already been severely eroded. The Government has required the Careers Serviceto target young people at risk of dropping out.
As a result, many schools have found that the help previously available to the majority of students, including those planning to enter further and higher education, has already been cut sharply. Now this is to be taken a stage further.
The proposals are based on policy amnesia. The Government appears to have forgotten that the Careers Service is relevant not just to social exclusion but to other parts of its agenda: raising achievement, lifelong learning, and placing the learner at the centre of education and training. All these aims need universal provision. The proposals also reveal a conspicuous absence of "joined-up thinking".
Elsewhere in the Department for Education and Employment a strategy is at last being developed for employment guidance services for adults, based around local partnerships led largely by the Careers Service. Allowing the service to be swallowed up by Youth Support could fatally weaken this strategy.
Arguments for the proposals include the fallacy that young people entering further and higher education should be able to fend for themselves. But there is plenty of evidence that students do make ill-informed decisions, with severe consequences for themselves and the country.
David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, wants fewer people over the age of 16 to drop out. Stripping away support systems will make this problem worse. Before long there will be a moral panic, and schools, colleges and support services will be castigated for the cost of these mistakes. But by then it may be too late: many of the advisers with the necessary expertise may well have left the service.
It seems curious that a New Labour Government, keen to maintain a broad electoral base, should not realise the dangers of what it proposes. It would not be difficult for the right-wing press to incite middle-class resentment if their children lose out to young people with whom they have little sympathy.
This is not to underestimate the importance of fighting social exclusion, and of the Careers Service's contribution to this struggle. Many in the service showed their commitment by developing such work with minimal support from the previous government. It needs to be developed - but not at the expense of mainstream careers support.
Indeed, the social exclusion agenda itself could be undermined by distorting the Careers Service's work in this way. The danger is that the new Youth Support Service would become stigmatised as an organisation for those who cannot fend for themselves. Even the target groups are likely to reject such a label - as will employers.
But the danger could easily be averted. If the new service provided a framework to strengthen the collaboration between the Careers Service, Youth Service and others, it could be an excellent development. But the Careers Service must contribute to such a framework; not disappear within it.
Tony Watts is director of the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling