No going back

Schools have pupils for an average of 15,000 hours. About 10 of those are devoted to careers education and guidance. It's a tall order for careers advisers and teachers - but then a lot has been asked of them over the past four years.

"It was a very very painful process," says Linda Ammon, head of careers for the Department for Education and Employment, talking about the competitive tendering system introduced by the last government. "It's a tribute to the chief executives that they've got their people through it."

A departmental survey of pathfinder careers services - the successful bidders in the first round of tendering, involving only local authoritytraining and enterprise council partnerships - found that 99 per cent of people involved did not want to go back to the old system. In a way, of course, there was no going back. Changing the system has been hugely expensive - the first three rounds of contracting out cost #163;6m.Reversing the change would be a further bureaucratic and financial nightmare.

It's four years since the Trade Union Reform amp; Employment Rights Act privatised the Careers Service. A host of competitiveness white papers revealed that Britain was falling behind Germany and Japan in training young people for an increasingly world-competitive workforce. Research showed that one in twelve British school-leavers have no qualification and that British staying-on rates were "abysmal" compared to other countries. The cost to the country of young people dropping out or making inappropriate career choices was #163;500m. Result: "A staggering level of under-achievement and waste of talent," according to David Blunkett, Education and Employment Secretary.

To stem the flow, the previous Government targeted the Careers Service, previously seen by some as a Cinderella service. Privatisation - wresting careers services from local authorities and putting them out to tender - took place in four stages, ending in April. Now, instead of the 112 services that previously existed in England (see page two for services in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales), there are 66 careers companies. Two-thirds are mergers of previous local authoritytraining and enterprise council services - the new Tyneside Careers for example incorporate Gateshead, Newcastle and North and South Tyneside careers services. The rest are private companies. Nord Anglia in Cheshire specialised in English language teaching, private and international schools; it now also owns five careers companies covering 11 local authority areas. In both cases, qualified staff were inherited from the previous regimes. And all are accountable to the Secretary of State.

According to some, the service has improved significantly over the past four years. "The new system has added impetus, energy and innovative capacity," says Tony Watts, director of the National Institute for Careers Education amp; Counselling. "Before, there was a lot of unevenness, and some complacency. It's shaken up the system."

Delia Keville of Nord Anglia's Lifetime Careers used to work for the Department for Education and Employment. Before privatisation, she says, there was no consistency in standard of service or of funding.

"The services were not all developing from the mid-Seventies type of organisation, into those which reflected changed patterns of learning and work and which were responsive to local need. And there was no correlation between size of service, levels of funding and quality of delivery."

Critics, however, say that the service has "gone to

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