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Irish eye smiles on the West

Sharon Watson arrived from Rochdale four months ago to take up her careers service post in Benbecula. Serving the Uists and Barra where there are five secondary schools, she was already a convert to the Chris Evans' factor long before the Radio 1 DJ fled to Inverness. She, too, has found clean air, space and tranquillity.

The contrasts are obvious. But Ms Watson was not unprepared: she trained in Scotland and, although England was her base for 13 years, she comes from Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. "It was almost like coming home," she says.

She was less prepared, however, for the provision she found in the Western Isles - and her colleagues tell her the Scottish picture is not much different. "I can't believe how little money is available for resource material and the paltry information that exists," she says.

"Schools can't even afford Pounds 25 for a copy of the most basic occupational careers manual which we all use. Guidance staff are tearing their hair out."

The major difference with England is the training and education councils have ploughed money into careers education, whereas there has been no equivalent largesse in Scotland.

Ms Watson has also been struck by something else. "As far as I can see, guidance teachers in Scotland are very overworked: in England there seems to be much more time for careers teachers, both to carry out interviews and do follow-up work."

However, Ms Watson believes the careers service is in better shape in Scotland. "Careers staff are more optimistic about the future, whereas in England I've seen very dedicated and committed people leaving a very uncertain and demoralised service as a result of privatisation." Local authorities have lost much of their responsibility for careers south of the border when the service was put out to tender.

Benbecula is not Lancashire or even Enniskillen and Ms Watson has had to get used to isolation. "If I miss anything, it's working as part of a team which is something I've always done," she says. "But it's a learning experience and I'm getting more used to it."

She pays tribute to the help she has received from colleagues and from the Lews Castle College. She has also found that pupils are more receptive to advice. "They have more time to talk and to do career or course research. They do come back and ask sensible questions. I've found elsewhere there is so much information overload people become blase about it."

Career aspirations on the Scottish islands have always been mixed. Young people may have been forced to leave out of necessity in the past and, while that may no longer be so prevalent they still want to spread their wings - despite recent drives in Skye and other places to persuade exiles to return home.

Ms Watson has noted not only the expectation, but also the willingness among pupils in Barra to go to Glasgow rather than Stornoway for further or higher education. "Everyone I meet in Barra seems to have relatives in Glasgow. "

One aspect of aspirations to which Ms Watson intends devoting some attention is the narrow and predictable horizons which many youngsters appear to have. It is, of course, also a gender issue that girls instinctively opt for teaching or the caring professions rather than science or engineering.

"I do worry about the young people's job prospects if that trend continues, " Ms Watson comments.

She has no shortage of challenges. But, she says, "I'm glad I made the move".


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