Fears that helpline will be helpless

The Scottish adult guidance helpline, to be launched on Monday by the Education Minister as the centrepiece of a national drive to promote lifelong learning, could be undermined by lack of support on the ground, it was claimed this week.

Dermot Dick, chairman of the Association of Careers Services in Scotland, said: "I am concerned that the helpline is being launched at this time. On the assumption that the helpline will generate increased demand for adult guidance, a percentage of enquiries will have to be referred to local agencies but I do not believe the local services are there to support that."

Local adult guidance networks, promised in February when the Scottish Office launched its lifelong learning plans, are not fully established and an adult guidance group to monitor developments nationally has still to be set up.

The Scottish Office accepts that some networks will be more ready to take referrals from the helpline than others. A spokesman said the helpline provider had already contacted careers companies to discuss how calls should be handled.

The helpline is being operated by the Continuing Education Gateway in Glasgow which, it emerged this week, was selected by the Scottish Office without the contract going to public tender. The Department for Education and Employment, by contrast, did seek tenders. A DFEE spokeswoman said that it would normally advertise even relatively minor contracts unless there were exceptional circumstances.

A Scottish Office spokesman said the Continuing Education Gateway had considerable experience in running a helpline, dealing with 12,000 calls a year in the west of Scotland, half the volume expected nationally. "The tender was carefully examined and we were satisfied that value for money had been achieved," the spokesman said.

But critics in Scotland point out that the English helpline is not to be launched until the new year, although the original intention was that it should operate in tandem with the Scottish telephone link. The all-important databases north and south of the border are also supposed to be compatible.

The Scottish Office has finally announced the winners of its challenge fund bids, worth Pounds 1.2 million a year over three years, to run adult guidance networks based in each of the 17 careers company areas. But Mr Dick points out it will take time to put staff in place.

The absence of the promised national guidance group is a major gap since its role is to promote adult guidance opportunities and monitor quality, he said.

The English helpline was announced at the end of last year but will not be established until the start of 1998, whereas the Scottish Office made its announcement in February with a launch seven months later. Any delay would have weakened the impact of the Scottish Campaign for Learning and lost the advantage of the start of the college and university terms, the Scottish Office said.

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