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Shepherding a new guidance service

Ministers must show a commitment to make new careers guidance impartial, independent and a partnership of equals, says Grant Jeffrey.

The Duffner committee's report on the careers service and the Scottish Executive response have set political machinations in motion in every corner of the guidance community. Publicly at least everyone wants to work constructively with everyone else, but privately a lot of people are watching their backs.

It is inevitable that such long overdue and potentially revolutionary proposals will, if not draw blood, cause a little unseemly perspiration.

Some of the controversy highlights both limitations in the remit of the committee and lack of clarity in its report. The key proposal, to establish a national, all-age guidance service (possibly called Careers Scotland), highlights the point: although some career service companies do provide adult guidance, some do not.

There are many providers of adult guidance throughout Scotland. They will be affected by the proposals, but they were not consulted by the review committee. If adult guidance workers are to feel they will have equal influence in the make-up of the new organisation there will need to be some swift consultation.

But one of the main reasons for lack of clarity, and the consequent opportunities for political spinning, has been the inability of the committee to use and define with precision the terms that litter the report. There are conflicting ideas about what guidance actually is, about the relationship between career guidance and adult guidance, and about the meaning of the much abused term "client-centred", to give but a few examples.

Similarly, great stock is placed on the provision of "impartial" information, but the days are long gone when most guidance practitioners believed information is ever impartial. They may help clients interpret information, but they won't get far claiming impartiality.

The committee had an opportunity to clarify these issues and pre-empt the worries about demarcation, academic qualifications and quality that are now arising. Many in the adult guidance community worry that incorporation into a new national body could undermine their traditionally "holistic" approach. This is unnecessary; in fact, they will have opportunities to help develop a more holistic approach to "career guidance" as active partners in the project.

Carping aside, this review, and the Scottish Executive's proposas, could have far-reaching and positive outcomes. Career guidance provision has been fragmented and inconsistent, with career companies more or less acting as private companies, each with its own identity, priorities and money-raising strategies. The establishment of a national organisation will raise the profile of guidance, setting high standards of professionalism and improving both the variety and interest of the work and giving job security to staff who have been forced to lurch from one short-term contract to another. There will also be a chance to centralise resources and create online services.

The Executive has agreed, in principle, that guidance activities and placing activities should be separated. Currently careers service companies operate a placing service, taking vacancies from employers and training providers and pre-selecting "suitable" young people for interview. In effect, records of "confidential" interviews are often read and used to decide on suitability for particular vacancies. As a result it has not been in the best interests of some young people to be totally honest. This barrier was not lost on young people and, combined with the benefit-policing role of career companies, has undermined work with the unemployed, giving the impression to some that the service is just another arm of the state engaged in social engineering.

Some in the career companies worry about being eaten up by Scottish Enterprise, whose remit to "help existing companies to grow" has the potential to conflict with a goal of "client-centredness". Much of the success of Careers Scotland, or whatever it is finally called, will depend on the way varied practitioners can put professional rivalries aside and work together to create partnerships to provide seamless all-age guidance.

Ultimately the proof of the Executive's commitment will depend on its ability to involve all the potential partners as equals; ensure that Careers Scotland can remain independent and impartial; and navigate the maze of bureaucracy and reserved powers that may inhibit the shedding of the compromising placing and "benefits policing" functions.

* To comment on the review of the careers service or to take issue with these opinions visit the bulletin board at uk. Visit the Scottish Executive website to make comments to the Executive.

Grant Jeffrey is a lecturer in guidance and counselling psychology at Napier University.

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