Colleges are failing to exploit simple changes which could dramatically improve the careers advice they offer students, according to a report by the Further Education Funding Council.
The report on a three-and-a-half- year study of progress by inspectors says the service is improving, but remains haphazard and patchy in many places.
Most colleges recognise the importance of good careers guidance and have become better at providing information on job choices, but "it is rare to find all the aspects of good practice which have been identified in one college".
The 55-page report, Careers Education and Guidance, compiled from FEFC inspection reports, says that careers guidance should be an integral part of a college's activity, recognising its role as a stepping stone between education and employment.
Simple measures, such as relocating career services to the foyer of the college, can raise the profile of careers guidance among students - in one college it resulted in a 100 per cent increase in student use. But not all colleges have the resources to cope with demand.
"Few colleges have sufficient trained staff to deliver careers guidance, particularly at peak enrolment times," the report says. It also found uneven rates of participation, with students heading for higher education being more likely to receive help than those looking for employment.
"A significant proportion of colleges do not give sufficient guidance and practical help to students aiming to enter employment," the report notes. Those following vocational courses receive more help than academic students, sometimes from part-time tutors still employed in industry.
One college has addressed this by appointing separate careers officers for higher education and employment. The best colleges gave GCSE and A-level students co-ordinated advice planned by specialist staff. "Where arrangements are not co-ordinated but left to subject teams," the report says, "planning and delivery is often patchy and inconsistent. Some subject tutors have little appreciation of the importance of careers education.
"In some colleges, careers education and guidance is a haphazard affair. Some students receive a good level of support; others, particularly those who do not take the initiative in seeking advice, receive little guidance."
Initial and continuing contact between students and careers advisors, like the scheme at West Midlands College which assigns personal careers tutors to students, is an important factor in productive careers advice. Colleges which gave careers advice a central role in policy-making were in the minority.
"The majority of colleges give inadequate attention to careers education and guidance in their strategic plans and monitoring procedures . . . only a handful of colleges monitor their careers education and guidance against appropriate standards and performance indicators," says the report.
"In the best examples, staff help entrants to make appropriate choices not only by discussing with them the courses available but also by helping them to consider the alternatives for further study or employment which may be available on successful completion of each course."
Colleges' increasing use of advertising and publicity could be used to highlight their careers service, the report suggests. One tertiary college has emphasised the link between training and employment by renaming its prospectus Turning Ideas into Careers and courses are listed beside their corresponding career options. For example, the section on media, entertainment and leisure details the qualifications required for jobs in the theatre, leisure management and arts administration. Links with schools are another way of identifying possible careers among pupils and helping them to decide on the best way forward.
One West Midlands sixth-form college has partnerships with 11 local schools and provides careers guidance from Year 7 onwards. Visits to the college for Year 10 children are hosted by students who are former pupils. But the scheme is not just a recruiting drive in disguise, and the college will refer school-leavers to the neighbouring FE college if it is more appropriate.
The report criticises some colleges for not giving students enough help in preparing applications to higher education and "a substantial number of colleges fail to prepare students adequately for interviews".
Listing the offers received from universities in the previous year, a compulsory short course in higher education application procedures, or asking students to compile an account of the interview process and their impressions of the place were some of the successful schemes implemented by colleges to help future applicants.
Ingredients needed for effective careers advice:
* a clear policy on careers education;
* centrally co-ordinated curriculum framework;
* systematically monitored quality standards;
* resource banks of good quality learning materials;
* well-qualified specialist teams;
* agreements with local careers services to include the needs of students with learning difficulties andor disabilities;
* direct involvement of employers and higher education representatives;
* careers guidance integrated with other aspects of the curriculum;
* careers-related activities across a student's learning programme;
* strategies to ensure that part-time students receive guidance;
* up-to-date job market information made available to staff and students;
* database on participation, retention and destination of students.