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For careers inspection, read action

The inspection of the careers service is an constant worry to careers advisers, teachers and employers.

Before privatisation, the service was inspected by the Office for Standards in Education. Now, there is a careers service inspectorate within the Department for Education and Employment.

Critics, however, claim that this is not a true inspection role - staff may send out questionnaires, talk to young people, obtain feedback from parents and schools, and then produce reports. But, they say, they don't go into careers companies, observe good - or poor - practice and point out failings.

According to one top adviser: "OFSTED goes into schools and demands an action plan. That's what's needed in careers services, especially in the private sector. Otherwise you only get half the picture. People have said privately that they can't inspect private companies. We're not asking for that. We're asking for inspection of delivery of the careers service. After all, it's a public service and therefore accountable."

The DFEE is reviewing its quality assurance arrangements, though has no plans to change them. Meanwhile the Further Education Funding Council recently just published its inspectorate report on careers education and guidance.

If licensing is to be introduced, as seems likely, a better - and independen t - system will have to be in place, says Cathy Bereznicki of the Institute for Careers Guidance. "You can't spend #163;200 million in England and not know if the quality is high. It may be costly, but it will be money well spent."

One problem is the lack of a national standard for careers guidance. Scotland, with 17 companies, has its Scottish Quality Management System (SQMS). And the Scottish Office is halfway through its first external audit to ensure the companies are up to scratch.

Dermot Dick of Careers Development Edinburgh and Lothian believes that Scotland has a consistency lacking south of the border. But he adds: "We're not complacent. SQMS is the framework for continuous improvement. And we're all involved in that."

England, however, has 66 companies. And the DFEE defends its "rigorous" quality audit framework, under which companies are allowed to develop their own quality management system - or buy them in from other companies. "Our approach is more flexible and appropriate to local circumstances," said a spokeswoman. "And companies' standards have to meet the requirements of our national framework."

A White Paper on standards was published in July and further work is being done by the DFEE in this area. The National Advisory Council for Careers Education and Guidance is being paid to develop standards for young people and adults, learning and work experience. The standards are being trialled and the aim is to extend them nationally on a subscription basis. And many companies are piloting their own standards with a view to marketing them.

In the meantime, although people in the service accept that standards have been driven up by competition, there is still confusion about what constitutes a quality standard. "It's been a bit of a muddle in the past," says a NACCEG spokeswoman. "It's been difficult to judge outcomes because there's been no national standard. We do need one."

Much is made of "outcomes" - the way a company's effectiveness is measured. But identifying and quantifying them isn't easy. "It's a very grey area, " as one careers adviser said. "Identifying what careers services give to a complicated business is difficult."

The DFEE specifies targets for companies to achieve - for individual interviews, group sessions, action plans, reports to parents, employer contact and so on. And the Treasury pays companies accordingly.

Critics, however, complain that the targets are narrow and over-prescriptive. And the recent National Audit Office report - which found just under half the 66 companies failing to meet their targets, incurring financial penalties - recommended the development of a more flexible targeting system to enable companies to tailor their provision to local demand.

"All the time," says Cathy Bereznicki, "our members are trying to strike a balance between their professional understanding of what they should be doing and the mechanistic model provided by action plans." In the rush to achieve targets, she thinks, quality and relevance are sometimes overlooked.

Linda Ammon, of the DFEE, disagrees. "It's quality, not quantity that we look for. It takes as long to conduct a good interview as it does a bad one. But we do need to know that the statutory duty has been met. That every young person has got an action plan. It goes without saying that it should be a good action plan. After all, the plan is the shop window of a good careers service. It's seen by parents as well as by students. So it has to be high quality."

Delia Keville, of Nord Anglia's Lifetime Careers Group, echoes the view. "People say you're only interested in numbers, but we think delivering targets is a critical way of delivering quality.

"Targets do put people under pressure. But our quality system then tells you whether you're doing them well. The two have to go hand in hand."

At the heart of this debate is the efficacy or otherwise of the action plans completed by careers advisers and students during interviews which show them how to proceed.

Neil McIntosh, of the Centre for British Teachers, is just one provider with doubts about action plans. Rather than being a true measure of output,he says, they are a surrogate measure. "While it's a good thing to work for targets, these targets aren't ones everyone feels enthusiastic about. They're grinding out action plans on behalf of young people who aren't much interested in them. They're not an encouragement to do things in an innovative way. They're a prescription ... which may undermine the capacity to be innovative."

Cathy Bereznicki would like to see the careers service providing a whole course of treatment - psychometric testing, careers databases, specialist sessions, workshops in self-analysis and self-presentation.

"The risk is that we offer the young person an action plan like a lifebelt and throw them into the sea and say, 'Now cope'."

Neil McIntosh agrees with this. Action planning, he says, should be part of the dynamic process of careers guidance, not simply an outcome.

"It's a tool which young people make use of to review what they've been doing and what they will be doing. The production of a plan itself isn't an outcome. It's the way it's developed and used. We should see them as a tool rather than an outcome."

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