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 Pounds 6m. Reversing the change would be a further bureaucratic and financial nightmare.
It's four years since the Trade Union Reform 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 Pounds 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 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 pieces" as too many changes have been introduced too quickly; that advisers are struggling to cope with the increased workload; and that market pressures are forcing them to meet artificial targets rather than providing a qualityservice.
Certainly, a recent report from the National Audit Office heavily criticised aspects of the "costly" new system. Contracting-out, it said, provided competition but adversely affected co-operation and sharing good practice between services. It gave commercial freedom and flexibility, but may have gone too far in its concentration on achieving targets (which just under half the 66 companies failed to meet). It also failed, the National Audit Office said, to provide a consensus view of a good standard of service.
In addition, there are those who believe that careers guidance is too indiscriminate in its aims, not focusing sufficiently on the people who really need it: the disaffected, the confused, and those badly advised by teachers and parents.
The Government is reviewing the whole issue of careers education and guidance, its findings to be published in a white paper in November. Labour is known to be considering a licensing system instead of today's competitive tendering, under which companies would bid for contracts on the basis of quality of service rather than cost. It is a move that many companies believe would save everyone's time, energy and money.
Tony Watts - who is also on the board of one of the new companies - is just one of those who believes licensing would provide greater security for companies working to annually reviewed five-year contracts. Under the present system, some companies lost their contracts after the first pathfinder round.
"The short-term nature of the contracts and competitive pressures," he said, "have meant companies have felt that, if they share good practice, they may build up potential competitors who challenge them at the next round and possibly win their contract. It breaks up professional collaboration. Licensing should mean more confidence, more support and more sharing. And they should drive up quality."
Delia Keville agrees. "Licensing is a jolly good idea - provided it's used to drive up standards. Therefore, the criteria must be set very, very high. And services that are failing should be put out for re-tender if they don't recover."
One of the fears during privatisation was that price would count rather than quality. According to the DFEE, these fears have not been realised. "The Secretary of State believes the new companies have brought the best of the public service ethos together with more streamlined management practice, " said Linda Ammon. "That's why the service is not going back into local authority control. He would have done that if the department had been worried."
The companies themselves point to the benefits privatisation has brought - to them and to their clients. "When I was in the DFEE," saidDelia Keville, "I thought, 'Why are we tinkering with the careers service? Is it just political?' But after the first year, the difference was visible. There are still improvements to be made - there always are. But the volume and quality of work is higher now around the country. There were always pockets of excellence. But privatisation has raised standards in general."
Standards, that is, of the service's delivery, accessibility and image (though one critic says the latter is still "pathetic".) Nord Anglia's Lifetime Careers offices, for example, are in high-profile town-centre locations. So are those of the much-admired Cornwall Devon service: "They're high-profile ground-floor premises," said area marketing manager, Sylvia Burn, "as opposed to the slightly apologetic first-floor-in-back-street premises we had before. "
Premises are also more hi-tech, there's more material available, including glossy brochures, better library provision, extended opening hours, and more pro-active advisers.
"The service is delivered with more confidence and independence now," according to Sylvia Burn. And companies talk about being "more client-orientated".
But what are the benefits to the young people themselves? The new legislation that became law this month means schools and colleges have to provide students with access to guidance materials and a range of information on careers education and opportunities. They must also provide careers advisers with reasonable access to students. And from September next year, they will be required to provide a planned programme of careers education for Years 9 to 11.
In addition, the Careers Service is required to give young people - via group sessions, personal interviews and action plans - information about jobs and the labour market, details of specific education, training, employment and self-employment opportunities.
That's the core contract, which costs the Treasury Pounds 209m per year. But, imbued with the spirit of competition, many companies provide extra services with funding from different sources. Tyneside Careers, for instance, provides a daily career club, as well as its Stop, Look Achieve training package, including confidence-building, job-search, interview techniques and career action-planning for disaffected young people. Nord Anglia runs training courses for careers teachers. Cornwall Devon runs, among other schemes, Challenge 500 - bursaries for post-16 students to enable them to set up work-experience projects to test their career ideas. Last year's projects, aimed at unusual work experiences, included a Leprosy Centre in Nepal, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Royal Marines Band in Portsmouth and BBC TV in London.
"In the past," said Sylvia Burn, "we couldn't have afforded such schemes. And we'd have had to go through a series of committee meetings first. Now we have the freedom and flexibility to develop new initiatives and offer those services as well as our core contract."
Michael Howard of Tyneside Careers - who used to head one of the former local authority-controlled careers services in the area - agrees. "We should ask what added value a careers service has brought to a particular area, like a deprived inner-city environment," he said.
After all, the "positive outcomes" in an area of high unemployment and low motivation - where the very term "career" is a misnomer - are likely to differ substantially from those in a thriving middle-class area. What's needed is a flexible approach to "outcomes" - be it university, sixth-form college, vocational training, employment with training, or simply a job. Michael Howard sees the biggest challenge to the present system being the balancing act between a national, guaranteed standard and the flexibility to meet local needs.
Neil McIntosh of the Centre for British Teachers - one of the largest providers of careers guidance, with contracts across the South-east - echoed this view. "By attempting to give universal entitlement to everybody," he said, "there's been insufficient discrimination in favour of those who will benefit more. Many young people don't need careers guidance." He pointed to his Berkshire service, which covers Eton. Many of the boys there, he says - including the heir to the throne - know exactly what they want to do in life. "But others don't. The Government needs to focus more on them."
The Northern Ireland Careers Service is the only service in Britain delivered within central government administration and is sited within the Northern Ireland Training and Employment Agency, an executive agency of the Department of Economic Development.
The agency delivers a range of services to employers and the general public, including job brokerage, job clubs and job placement for the unemployed, training opportunities for young people and adults through the Jobskills programme, community work programmes and the European Vacancy Service (EURES).
The Northern Ireland Training and Employment Agency is committed to guidance in its corporate objectives and careers officers, based at 32 offices throughout Northern Ireland, provide an all-age guidance service. The agency's Careers and Occupational Information Unit is the sole provider of local careers information in Northern Ireland and acts as a clearing house for the Department for Education and Employment's Career and Occupational information unit and other UK publishers.
An important area of work for the Northern Ireland Careers Service is the provision of careers guidance to young people in full-time education (there are 26,000 eligible school-leavers).
"Our caseload is not dissimilar to that in England. It's where the service is sited," said Tom Evans, senior careers adviser. "Young People in Northern Ireland are faced with similar challenges to their peers throughout the UK, that is to make a realistic decision which takes account of their aspirations and abilities and the nature of the labour market.
"I would hope the service to young people will reach the same level and quality wherever you are. The organisational arrangements shouldn't impact dramatically on the quality of the service."
After privatisation, the agency conducted a feasibility studywhich recommended Northern Ireland should not follow the English model but concentrate on improving its effectiveness.
In 1995 the report of the Northern Ireland review of careers guidance Improving Quality was launched which listed three mainrecommendations for strengthening the service: the development of policy statements for school-based careers and guidance programmes; the introduction of personal career plans for all pupils commencing at key stage 4; and the development of more formal partnership arrangements between schools, colleges and the careers service.
Service level agreements are being introduced from September 1997. The desired outcomes from the review recommendations are that careers will have a higher profile within the curriculum, young people will be the central focus of careers programmes and the partnership between schools and the careers service will be strengthened.
There are 17 career services in Scotland, run by the Scottish Office. The Scots decided not to follow the English route, because they believed the existing partnership between schools, colleges and employers was sufficiently effective. Instead, in just one round of tendering, which began in 1994, contracts were offered on a preferred bidder basis to partnerships of local authorities and local enterprise companies. These were approved in all but two areas: Fife and Tayside, where the contracts were put out to competitive tender. Both went to an in-house consortium of local authority, local enterprise company and other partners.
Most of the 17 partnerships are companies limited by guarantee, usually with charitable status. One, in Dumfries and Galloway, is a legal partnership formed under the 1980 Partnership Act.
Dermot Dick is chief executive of Career Development Edinburgh and Lothians, and chair of the Association of Careers Services in Scotland. He believes the English model of competitive tendering is expensive and potentially deleterious. "Companies here have continued to work together in a more co-operative and perhaps less competitive framework," he said. "So they're not always looking over their shoulder to see if their neighbour is making predatory noises."
He said it was early days to be drawing finite conclusions about the success or otherwise of the new service. "The new arrangements have brought a wider spectrum of employer and education interests into the management of careers services companies. Which has enriched the decision-making process and brought expertise into the management which is different from that available before.
"For example, careers advisers have been very good at doing the job they do, but not always very good at telling the public what they do. Employer expertise in marketing and promotion has been significant on company boards and has helped professsionalise some of the marketing in careers service companies. "
As in England, responsibility for the Careers Service in Wales transferred from the local authorities to the Secretary of State in 1993. Following open competitive tendering, contracts were awarded for five years from April 1, 1995, in each of the eight areas (based on training and enterprise council boundaries except in West Wales, where the former Dyfed and West Glamorgan boundaries apply). Welsh Office contracts with the companies in the year 1997-98 amount to Pounds 13.2 million.
All the companies are limited by guarantee and are primarily sponsored by the local authorities and TECs, with boards including business interests. They work to a national service specification similar to that in England, which defines the standard required. Company progress is monitored by the department every month and quarter, with formal performance reviews at half-year and annual stages.