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Case study: the funding chasm

Since it was set up, Connexions has too often felt like a fix. But it isn't really all the service's fault. In fact, I'm beginning to think Connexions itself got fitted up. On top of its remit, to help improve life chances for the most needy of our young people - an ambitious target in itself - came a guarantee of a universal careers service for students.

That was the problem. Long before 2001, a universal careers service for students was unheard of for many of us, because there were too few careers advisers to deliver it. And that was before the 47 Connexions partnerships started recruiting their managers and personal advisers, often from the front-line staff who, the year before, had been delivering careers direct to our students.

I've been in my current school for eight years, and I've lost count of the number of careers advisers who have come and gone. For much of that time, our children have had no one to help them chart their futures other than our own school careers and resources manager. If it wasn't for her we might as well have renamed our careers office the "Marie Celeste", in honour of the still swinging door and the empty chair. But when they've been here, the service has often been good and has complemented what the school provides. Our most recently departed personal adviser was the exception, and lasted almost two years. He came to us while still training but, just as he was starting to become effective, he was promoted and moved on.

Careers is just one of the "Cinderella agencies" working with young people.

It's not that the vision for Connexions is flawed, but that agencies such as the education welfare and careers services all too often lack the critical mass of trained staff to deliver their challenging agendas.

Inadequate funding and low status make recruitment and retention difficult.

My guess is that Connexions in schools works best where the need is greatest, where funding isn't an issue and where it's easier to recruit and retain high quality staff. Usually that means the inner city.

For example, schools in Excellence in Cities clusters are often models of best practice when it comes to developing strategies to motivate and support young people. But the trouble is there's a funding chasm between these schools and the rest of us.

Because Connexions was set up to support the most challenged 20 per cent of our young people, for many schools - whether they are leafy suburbs, rural poor or, like mine, outer-rim inner city - the real challenge is about resourcing provision for the other 80 per cent. We're not short of strategies. Our problem is we often don't have the funding or the people to support them. So our ability to intervene and make a rapid impact is often limited.

Connexions has helped my school fund a resource centre in the school library. But money for capital projects, while helpful, isn't the key: what we need are the funds to help us - on our own or with others - turn great ideas into reality. That's why Connexions's sponsorship of a joint project between my school and another local school to employ a personal adviser full-time to work with key stage 4 students is the way to go. By funding local innovation, Connexions will directly help underachieving young people, while supporting our work-related learning programmes.

But all schools need access to such funding, instead of the the day or, if they're lucky, day-and-a-half a week entitlement of a Connexions personal adviser to reinforce their careers support.

Connexions has much to offer, so it's a shame it has failed to provide a universal careers service, other than through its website, Connexions-direct. There is now a much more comprehensive careers strategy, there are great resources, careers online and, in many of the partnerships, good drop-in centres and a growing portfolio of best practice. But a lot of kids don't have the access they deserve, simply because they aren't in the most traditionally deprived areas.

The writer is the head of an 11-16 comprehensive in the south of England

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