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Connexions offers best guidance yet

Recent articles in The TES have reported on the alleged failings in the delivery of careers guidance by the new Connexions Services. These failings have been identified by bodies such as the National Association of Careers and Guidance Teachers.

As chief executive of one of those services under their fire I feel justified, and qualified, to offer an alternative perspective.

In 2002 I inherited an output-driven careers service with fewer than 60 professional staff and an annual budget of around pound;4 million. A straw poll of young people I met in shops or on the street, undertaken on the day of my interview, revealed no praise for the service I was to lead.

The careers offices, designed in the style of dentist waiting rooms, were most often empty, other than on benefits days, and partnership working was almost unheard of.

On the day Connexions Tees Valley went live in September 2002, the budget nearly doubled. Since then, with the addition of European and other partner funding, it has nearly quadrupled.

The drab careers offices became lively one-stop shops, designed by young people for young people, with more and more partners offering services from this shared accommodation.

Footfall in the past year has doubled and average interview time has risen from five to 35 minutes. The service is now open in the evenings and at weekends, with mobile units and access points in schools, colleges and community settings as well as the direct helpline extending access in new ways.

There are now 130 personal advisers with broad expertise funded from a range of sources, and the number of staff with a careers guidance qualification has not dropped.

Every school has a dedicated personal adviser whose workload is based on an individual partnership agreement with the institution to make sure personal advisers add value.

We also support school careers guidance co-ordinators with better library and curricula support programmes, and are currently exploring securing external funding to provide additional admin support, thereby freeing up teaching and personal adviser time.

At local and individual casework level, partnership work across agencies and services is helping to bring real and positive benefits to young people.

Critics may be right that careers guidance in England is not all it should be, but the issue is that it never has been. I have only ever met one person who ascribed their success as an adult to good careers advice - and that was a principal careers officer.

When private careers firms were funded on the basis of numbers interviewed, the outcomes of those interviews were pretty secondary. For us it is of primary concern. I want every encounter with a Connexions adviser to leave the young person clearer and more positive about their chosen direction.

I want to know that the young person is seen in the round. If a family issue is preventing attainment, then that should be dealt with and not passed over because it is someone else's job. If a young person lacks the self-confidence to realise their potential, Connexions and its partners should create opportunities to grow that confidence.

The idea is that young people should be equipped to make the transitions between childhood and adult life, well-informed and full of aspirations for themselves and their communities.

The critics can harp on about the failings of careers guidance and plea for a return to pure careers services, but I will have my eyes on the future and my holistic Connexions model.

I will have in sight its better funding, more diverse and qualified staff, more flexible delivery mode, stronger young person focus and roots in partnership working. And I will lay money on it producing better outcomes for young people as a result. Connexions services are still very young, but increasingly statistics and external inspection are showing them to be effective and value for money.

Fiona Blacke

Chief executive

Connexions Tees Valley

Calvert's LaneStockton-on-Tees

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