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Careers need cash

As members of the Institute of Careers Guidance gather at Warwick University today for their 75th anniversary conference, they will be in a mood to celebrate the successes of the past four years - of which there have been many. But there will also be a strong desire to call ministers to account, and ask them to clarify their policies for the future.

Careers education has undergone such a revolution that there is now no going back. Taken out of local education authority control in 1993, the service was privatised at a cost of at least Pounds 6 million and reconstructed as 66 independent companies.

Today, those who won the Pounds 209m worth of contracts speak the language of the market-place, of "high-quality delivery" to "customers" in a new world of stiff competition. Whatever doubts individual advisers may have about this enforced cultural shift, there seems to be a consensus that these customers are getting a better deal. A Government survey of 15 pioneering careers services - quoted in this week's 12-page careers special pull-out - says so. Careers workers on the ground, surveyed by The TES and Institute of Careers Guidance (page 4) echo these sentiments.

But that may not be saying very much. Privatisation brought with it ministerial exhortations, targets and efficiency savings, duties and entitlements - but little extra cash. If there seemed to be a bit more money sloshing around, that was largely because the number of services across the country had been reduced from 112 to 66. And, in fairness, the new careers companies have managed to generate some extra money - badgering the training and enterprise councils and forming links with industry and commerce.

But, as most of the respondents to the surveys testify, there is still nowhere near enough. Halving the number of services has more than doubled the workloads on most companies, substantially increasing the burden on individual careers teachers and advisers. Today, they lack time and training to keep up to date, the paperwork is overwhelming, and the help from industry is less than they were led to expect by ministers.

There is also tension between the nationally-agreed targets and maintaining the flexibility which is essential if local labour needs are to be met. What's more, sound labour market information from industry and TECs - the lifeblood of a good local careers service - is inadequate in at least 40 companies. Many have resorted to gathering their own data, so diverting cash from vital education and advice services.

This term, new legislation has brought even more demands. The Careers Service is now required by law to offer young people personal interviews, help them construct action plans, and give them information about jobs and a whole tranche of details on further education and training opportunities.

And this is just the beginning. A root-and-branch review of the careers service started under the Tories has the whole-hearted support of David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary. He is expected to continue the revolution, starting with a White Paper in November. This is likely to switch the contract awarding system from one of competitive tendering to one of licensing. Contracts will be awarded by the DFEE according to quality of service rather than on the basis of cost, and those bidding will know what they will have to spend if they win since that will have been one of the conditions laid down by the department.

A shift of this kind, making quality rather than cheapness the key priority, would be welcomed by most in the Careers Service. Tory-style competition has led to trade secrecy and a break-down in co-operation between different local companies, for fear of giving away information vital to winning contracts. Such developments have not necessarily resulted in benefits for customers. A raft of further reforms are on the cards next year - to make work experience more relevant to career aspirations and to the national curriculum, and to develop better careers guidance both in and out of school.

But although such developments are highly desirable, careers companies still need well thought-out and properly costed action plans as much as do the individuals they serve.

Currently, there are only two certainties facing the Careers Service: that the workload will continue to increase, and that David Blunkett has no intention of turning the clock back. The continued uncertainty over funding is threatening to undermine a service which still needs to raise its game year-on-year, if the rhetoric of "lifelong learning" is ever to become a reality.

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