Careers guidance and education in Scotland is under the microscope as never before. The upheaval, which brought the local enterprise companies into joint control of the service along with the local authorities last April, could be interpreted as a recognition that the subject was too important to be left to the professionals.
As these changes were bedding down, what Dermot Dick, who chairs the Association of Careers Services in Scotland, calls the "shock wave" of local government reform came along to upset relationships all over again.
Mr Dick, the chief executive of Career Development Edinburgh and Lothians, cautions that the new partnership between the education authorities and business interests must be given time to put down roots before there is a rush to judgment. The temptation should be resisted to draw comparisons with England where "more mature" contractual arrangements have been delivering the new-style careers service to young people and adults for three years.
Henry Fairweather, a director of Scottish and Newcastle who represents the chambers of commerce on the Scottish Office's careers service consultative group, agrees that it is too early to say whether the organisational changes will prove beneficial or not. In any case, he adds, it is the quality of the service that matters. But Donald Matheson, the head of Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh, detects benefits from the introduction of sharper business acumen into the service.
Everybody now wants in on the act. Sound careers advice is central to the success of a vast number of initiatives - the Skillseekers youth training programme, the Scottish Office's adult guidance strategy, the European Year of Lifelong Learning, the national Skills Forum whose report is due in October, Higher Still, the National Record of Achievement, the national education and training targets.
Evidence on the soundness of careers advice is mixed. The recent report on school guidance (TESS June 7), from Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology, was critical of the links between guidance staff and careers officers. The authors found careers provision left a lot to be desired, particularly for S4 leavers and S5 academic pupils.
This is borne out partly at least by young people's perceptions. Some 38 per cent of the 3,223 pupils who took part in the 1994 Scottish school-leavers' survey said they had not learned enough about jobs and careers, while nearly half had not been given enough help with choosing a job or career (44 per cent) or choosing a course or training after school (43 per cent) - "a very slight improvement" over the previous year, the survey report states.
This concern is shared by the Secretary of State's own Advisory Scottish Council on Education and Training Targets. It will sit down next month to discuss the way forward for careers support on which national guidelines for Scotland were last issued in 1986. The council will no doubt press for an updated version which will establish a national framework with clear objectives for the careers service. It is also certain to make some fundamental recommendations for strengthening the role of careers teachers across the school curriculum.
The Scottish Office has already responded with an Pounds 8.5 million cash injection into careers education and guidance over the three years to 1998, beginning with a Pounds 750,000 training package specifically aimed at careers teachers and librarians in secondary schools, an acknowledgement that all is not what it ought to be. This aims to improve links between schools and the careers service and ensure teachers' knowledge on careers is up-to-date.
The major changes which have taken place in the jobs market, the training world, further education and the universities make the challenge facing careers staff in keeping abreast of these changes a particularly tall order. And that is before they have to take on the task of guiding fifth and sixth year pupils through the subject and career consequences of Higher Still.
A survey last year of careers education and guidance in English and Welsh schools by the Office for Standards in Education, the Government's inspectorate, drew a key distinction between careers guidance and education. While it found guidance to be in generally decent health, its report concluded that the wider educational task of "developing students' knowledge and understanding of the world of work, the changes within it and the skills needed to survive" was ineffectively done. Ofsted has now produced an eight-point action plan drawing together these strands of careers support.
Varry Pugh, director of Understanding British Industry in Scotland, which is sponsored by the CBI employers' organisation, says schools need to take account of the fact that "no longer is there a job for life with a planned career structure, company training scheme and progressive rise in income and security." Careers guidance therefore has to emphasise the qualities of self-reliance and adaptability, she added.
From his employer's perspective, however, Mr Fairweather, says that "young people are coming to us with a better idea of what sort of qualities they need for a particular career, and the preparation that is required, than was the case a few years ago".
Donald Matheson, who is also a member of the Scottish Office's career group, strikes a similarly positive note and points out that the "service level agreements" between careers companies and schools have tightened things up considerably. "It is much less ad hoc and there is now a safety net of basic provision which can be measured," he says.
Tony Gavin, the head of St Margaret's Academy in Livingston, agrees that these contracts "have led to much better management control of the system and made careers education more integral to what the school is doing".
Mr Matheson is concerned that the Higher Still reforms will impose greater strains on an already over-stretched guidance staff in schools, although he hopes it might also provide an opportunity for re-evaluating the service, improving support for the staff in particular.
Mr Gavin, who chaired the Higher Still specialist group on guidance, believes technology could come to the aid of teachers struggling to keep themselves informed of the world beyond the school gates.
The existence of central databases such as those at Gateway in Glasgow (page 9), allied to the increasing number of schools and colleges accessing the Internet, offers new ways of doing things, he suggests.
Mr Gavin continues: "Staff development will obviously be required. We will expect pupils to take more responsibility for researching their career aspirations, albeit with tutorial help and other support. The days when everybody ran around after everybody else should be coming to an end.
"The important thing for school staff then is that they should be released to find out more about the 'big picture' not just their 'bit.' This is not just a matter for guidance teachers alone: all teachers need to be aware of changes in employment, training, higher education and the labour market because decisions are taken every day which could be of crucial importance to their subject. "
But is the subject-based nature of the secondary school itself part of the problem for an area like careers which by its nature is cross-curricular and therefore at a potential disadvantage? In a critique of the Higher Still guidance proposals David McLaren, lecturer in educational studies at Jordanhill, suggests in the latest issue of Scottish Educational Review that this is a subject (sic) which must be tackled rather than grafting something new on to a guidance system "which is creaking at the seams". Guidance staff, he adds, provide "a full-time service on a part-time basis" - and that is for the full range of guidance activities, not just careers support.
The careers service looks like being under the microscope for some time to come.