Occupational hazard

A careers service that meets the needs of both pupils and employers? It's an ambitious goal, says Francis Beckett

There's an uncomfortable question about careers services which everyone is too polite to ask. Who are they supposed to benefit? Young people on the threshold of careers or the companies which need skilled labour?

Most people content themselves with the easy answer: that they should benefit both. But if careers services see their role as simply identifying and plugging skills shortages identified by companies, then they will essentially be serving only the interests of employers. And if they see their central role as preventing social exclusion by targeting disaffected pupils, they run the risk of failing the employers.

The Government's proposed changes to the careers service steer a careful path through this conundrum. In 1998, it became compulsory for schools to provide a programme of careers education from years 9 to 11. At the same time, careers services were outsourced to 66 companies in England via contracts with the DFEE. But the Government asked the careers service to target those at risk of dropping out, indicating that broader social objectives were to be prioritised.

The task for the careers service was to provide up-to-date knowledge of the labour market and impartial advice, together with careers library and education consultancy support, in-service training for teachers, work experience programmes and placements. The same year, a critical Ofsted survey demonstrated the need for new national occupational standards for careers education and guidance in schools, and these were introduced in October 1999.

But the Government's ultimate goal, outlined in the Learning to Succeed white paper, was a single coherent strategy aimed at all young people aged 13 to 19, called ConneXions. The idea was to give this age group access to a personal adviser to help smooth the path into adulthood and the world of work.

ConneXions is designed to integrate existing careers advice and support services for young people into one framework, with a single point of contact, in contrast to the eight agencies at present.

The systm into which ConneXions fits is an employer-led one - the learning and skills councils and regional development agencies will all (in theory) combine to ensure schools and colleges produce the skills employers require.

But, the ConneXions service and schools' personal advisers will be appointed and managed by headteachers. This does not augur well for the supposed independence of careers advice. One of the shrillest complaints about schools is that they try to keep their brightest pupils for the sixth form. This initiative is an attempt to square the circle: to devise a system which works for young people and for employers. It's an ambitious aim, never before achieved.

But will it be achieved this time? Leading education and industry players suggest the answer is a resounding maybe. Professor Tony Watts, of the National Institute of Careers Education and Counselling (NICEC), says that industry sees ConneXions as a service designed for those at risk being rolled out to become universal. It should, he says, have been the other way round: universal service focusing on the needs of those at risk.

The CBI agrees and stresses the need for every young person to have access to high quality careers guidance. But because of the recent focus on the disaffected, the principle of universal access is already threatened, says the Careers Services National Association.

Steve Stewart, chief executive of Quality Careers Services, which is piloting ConneXions in Coventry and Warwickshire, believes a universal service can be delivered even when the focus is on those in need. He says he needs an extra pound;2.5 million to achieve the goal of zero local youth unemployment by 2005.

There's also the question of how employers relate to the new system of learning and skills councils. British Chambers of Commerce chief executive Chris Humphries is clear on this issue. "Business has to put something into this process, not merely receive the output," he says.

That's why he, too, worries if targeting teenagers at risk of social exclusion may mean a poorer service for the rest who are, though no one puts it this way, the more desirable future employees.

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