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Delayed report may alter careers advice links

Rebuilding structures hit by privatisation is a Labour priority, reports Mark Jackson

Publication of a long-withheld Government report on the costs of privatising local authority careers departments is expected to fuel calls for a searching review of careers services.

The report, compiled by the National Audit Office in mid-1996, is thought to have been held back by the Conservatives because it showed that the policy had been a costly mistake.

Whatever the findings, ministers are already being told both by the local authorities and careers officers that in many parts of the country privatisation has disrupted links between the education service and careers work-and that restoring them will be vital to the success of Labour's plans for post-16 education and training and for the young unemployed.

The current structure of the careers service, a jumble of public and private control, is the combined effect of two Conservative ministerial crusades - to reduce the responsibilities of local education authorities and to hand over as many public activities as possible to the private sector.

More than a dozen years ago, ministers began complaining that the careers service, run as part of local education, was over-influenced by educational interests and not responsive enough to employers' concerns.

By the turn of the decade, ministers were warning local authorities that their careers services would be taken over by the Government unless they set up arrangements to share their management with employer-dominated bodies such as the training and enterprise councils. But in the event, this policy was overtaken by the Tory privatisation drive .

Since 1993, careers services have been provided by companies under contracts with the Department for Education and Employment. Education departments can form partnership companies to bid for contracts in competition with the private sector.

Critics say that the tendering system is a waste of money because around three-quarters of the contracts have gone to the education partnership companies, anyway; and that in the rest of the country, the service suffers from a lack of local planning and co-ordination.

Among the more curious effects is that careers work in some places is being carried out by companies managed by faraway education departments with no links to local education providers.

The Institute of Careers Guidance has told ministers that careers service providers should be in some degree locally accountable, and this could be best achieved through the local authority. Cathy Bereznicki, its chief executive, says the institute has in mind setting up local steering and consultative bodies.

Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, goes further. He says that the authorities will be telling the minister responsible, Kim Howells, at their meeting next month, that it is time to go back to something like the original Tory plan, and insist that only partnerships which include the local education authority be allowed to provide the local careers service.

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