Many people blamed the national curriculum because careers education was not compulsory, schools were forced to concentrate their resources on the 10 required subjects. The Government is now spending Pounds 87 million over the three years until 1998 "to improve the quality and coverage of careers guidance for pupils from age 13".
The sudden change in attitude was signposted by the Department for Education's 1994 document Better Choices: Working Together to Improve Careers Education and Guidance The Principles. This has been seen by some as a belated recognition of chronic youth unemployment. Whereas in the past, careers guidance tended to revolve around short-term job-finding, now the onus is on young people planning for their future, and developing their careers.
Although some would say that the Government is throwing money at a problem rather late in the day, ministers are right to be concerned about the quality of careers education on offer from schools and the careers service.
Local authority careers services have been drab and lacking in innovation, yet most of the newly-privatised careers services are made up of old local authority provision. Few in the private sector were interested, because the prospect did not look profitable. Only last month Grand Met Trust pulled out of its plans to run careers offices in several south London boroughs, saying it could not commit the level of investment needed for quality.
It is becoming clear that the "new" careers services are more concerned with survival than their ability to provide neutral advice. This is hardly surprising when about 15 per cent of a service's income is based upon providing action plans for Year 11 pupils, which are required by law whether or not pupils make use of them.
The neutrality of the careers service and the advice it provides should be closely examined. Can a service be truly independent when it places a greater emphasis on income generation than on helping people? It is common knowledge in careers circles that some areas have directed staff to concentrate on completing action plans to raise funds at the expense of other activities.
Some careers services are even looking to sell other "products" to schools to raise income, and have encouraged schools and colleges to enter into service level agreements with them. Many schools are now regretting entering into such agreements, mainly because careers services are proving unable to deliver what they promised.
The Government is now proposing legislation which could give the careers service the right to enter schools, to establish offices in schools, access to confidential information, and the right to direct schools in careers-related matters.
Are these draconian measures really necessary? If the Government had funded careers guidance properly in the first place such remedial action would not now be needed. The only valid reason for the proposed legislation is to make up for deficiencies in the careers sector of the new educational market system.
Research has shown that many assumptions underlying the Government's education and training policies are at odds with the way young people actually choose their careers. Policies need to recognise that people do change their minds about careers, and that we must find ways of dealing with such a fluid situation.
At present most young people are quickly pigeon-holed in terms of expectations and career aspirations. Any attempt to break out from this strait jacket is often frustrated by the career adviser's lack of time, and the fact that a positive action plan has already been drawn up for their future. The new market system for careers guidance is struggling. New companies tend to be bureaucratic which does not bode well for negotiations with schools. Careers advisers are under strong commercial pressure. While the old LEA system was far from perfect, it could at least be argued that the consumer got a better deal.
The solution to providing good careers education and guidance in schools and colleges is relatively simple. Schools should have access to proper funding and good quality training. The careers service should be independently funded, without the application of market forces. It should play a supporting yet subordinate role, allowing schools and local careers offices to develop an individual and caring service for their particular clientele.
Mark Green is head of careers and business studies at Old Swinford Hospital, a grant-maintained boys' school in Stourbridge