NO ONE could accuse the Government of letting socially excluded 16 and 17-year-olds slip off the political agenda.
The plight of disadvantaged and disaffected young people is being investigated by Labour's social exclusion unit and was highlighted in the recent White Paper on post-16 education, which found that 160,000 16 to 18-year-olds were neither working nor learning.
It is terrain already explored by the think-tank Demos in Real Deal, published last May, which analysed the views of 150 young people living at the sharp end. The report was based on in-depth interviews over eight months.
The Demos report said that 16 to 17-year-olds could benefit from the kind of support given to adults on New Deal, the Government's scheme for the long-term unemployed. Careers guidance should be "drastically improved" to make it more relevant. It should also be introduced earlier into young people's educational careers.
These calls chime with plans for a new one-to-one mentoring system to help young people with their career and personal lives which emerged from the White Paper. The service, called Connexions, will be available to those as young as 13 who are at risk of dropping out or being excluded from school.
A scheme based on these recommendations will be piloted this autumn. Details are sketchy. But it is expected to be an expanded version of the New Deal model, where personal advisers work with each jobless person when they join the programme.
Connexions could cater for around 250,000 youngsters requiring the services of 10,000 mentors. The idea is to ensure "young people have the help, support and guidance that will raise their aspirations and tackle any personal and family problems standing in their way".
Leigh Henderson from the Guidance Council, the body that supervises the careers service nationally, said it was too early to frame a detailed response to the White Paper. But it was "the council's view that anything that provides increased support for people in sorting out their skills and attitudes has got to be welcomed".
The role of the careers service in the mentoring initiative remains unclear. The White Paper raises questions about its positioning as the local learning and skills councils take responsibility for work-based training for young people.
There were few plaudits for the careers service from the young people interviewed for Real Deal. Most felt the guidance given had been of little help, and information about opportunities, entitlements and available support was largely inadequate. The report called for careers guidance to be "drastically improved" to make it more relevant. It should be also introduced earlier into young people's educational careers.
Shortly before Real Deal and another Demos report, Destination Unknown, were published, the Government announced two measures in line with their findings: citizenship lessons and plans to pay teenagers pound;40 a week to stay on at school if they live with their families.
The think-tank also called for a minister for youth, a wider debate on drugs, cheaper leisure facilities, confidential counsellors and peer counselling in school, support for youngsters leaving care and more childcare places. Support should be personalised, and guidance workers should be able to advise young people as they make progress over time.
Ensuring guidance is relevant to vulnerable young people -
and giving it early enough - remains a key challenge to the professionals.