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Model guidance system

Careers advice should not be left to overloaded tutors in schools, writes Tony Watts

One of the strengths of career guidance provision for young people in the UK has been that it has been based on a partnership. Schools have provided ongoing contact with students and links with the curriculum. The Careers Service has offered specialist expertise, knowledge of the labour market and impartiality. Many other countries have had one or other of these systems. The UK has had the benefits of both.

Under the New Labour Government, however, the Careers Service has been "refocused" on the needs of young people at risk of dropping out, and subsumed within the new Connexions service. While schools can look to Connexions to provide intensive personal help to students at risk, the extent of the careers services available to other students has been seriously eroded.

The legal entitlement of all young people to impartial guidance by skilled people is being neglected. All the performance measures for Connexions relate to the at-risk group; none to the universal service.

Erosion of professional standards has also occurred. The Government has insisted that all advisers within Connexions be called personal advisers, and has refused to allow those with career-guidance qualifications to be called careers advisers. The result is that young people, their parents and teachers are not able to distinguish between those advisers who are qualified to offer career guidance and those who are not. A recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review has strongly challenged this policy, and argued the need for career guidance to "retain a strong and independent identity".

Voices of dissent are growing. Headteachers are pleading for the restoration of services previously available to all students. Colleges are protesting about the loss of impartial guidance. Employers are complaining about the lack of informed guidance on work-based options.

At a policy level, there is concern that career guidance is being subordinated to the Government's social-inclusion agenda. The importance of career guidance in supporting its 14-19 curriculum reforms and its skills agenda is being lost, as is its role in reducing drop-out in further and higher education due to ill-informed and ill-thought-through choices. The focus is merely on engagement and retention, not on successful transition and progression.

The Every Child Matters Green Paper is now bringing these issues to a head.

The motive behind the paper - to improve care for children - is admirable.

But for careers services it could be disastrous.

The paper proposes that Connexions should be subsumed within new Children's Trusts, to be part of the local authority. This offers the prospect of careers services being even further marginalised. The age-frame for the trusts will be 0-19, not 14-19; the focus will be child protection, not development; the key players will be social services, not education.

Ring-fencing of budgets will be difficult to sustain. If career guidance advocates have struggled to have their voice heard within Connexions, this will now be even more the case, with power struggles between much larger forces.

If career-guidance services from a neutral base are to be sustained, the most viable option is to take them out of the new arrangements and place them under the Learning and Skills Councils. This would re-establish links with the skills agenda, which is a more natural base for a universal service. It would also enable operational links with adult guidance services to be strengthened, as in Scotland and Wales.

If this is not done, it seems likely that careers services will gradually disappear, and be replaced by an exclusively school-based career guidance system for young people. Thus the Government is suggesting that the main advice at 14-19 should be provided by tutors, whose role is already overloaded, and most of whom have had no career guidance training. The recent OECD Career Guidance Policy Review has pointed out, in strong terms, the deficiencies of an exclusively school-based model. These include the loss of links with the labour market, and the risk that career decisions are excessively influenced by the institutional needs of schools rather than the needs of young people and of the wider economy.

In Denmark, which has traditionally had only a school-based service, new complementary services outside school are being established, for precisely these reasons. It would be ironic if, at a time when the arguments for the UK's partnership model are being recognised internationally, England was to adopt the discredited school-based model, and to do so not by design but by default.

If this is to be avoided, urgent action is required.

Tony Watts was a member of the OECD Career Guidance Policy Review project team. This article is written in a personal capacity

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