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Starter's orders

Directions '95 The Schools' Fair offers 15 to 18-year-olds expert career and higher education counselling. Frances Farrer previews this year's three-day event.

The first striking thing about Directions '95 The Schools' Fair is its great variety: among the 250 exhibitors are universities, colleges, people who cater for the rising number of gap year students, the armed forces, industrialists, banks, language trainers and organisers of modern apprenticeships. The second striking thing is how highly the exhibitors speak of it, saying they make the right contacts there and are asked good questions. People don't go along simply to grab the leaflets.

This year's newer elements include a stronger emphasis on gap years, advances in the Modern Apprenticeships scheme, and more jobs and opportunities in Europe. The Russians are coming back, keen to attract students to Russia. There are daily seminars on specific career options and general topics such as CV writing, travel, and preparing to be a student.

For those who like to be shaken from complacency, two popular ideas are being exploded at a stroke: the notion that Europe is still safely over there and the belief that television has no influence on behaviour. According to Mick Carey of the Careers Europe information service (tel: 01274 757521), enquiries about working in France rose exponentially following the screening of A Year in Provence.

Careers Europe, which is organising a special European Careers Clinic, deals with opportunities at any level, from chefs to interpreters. The initial questions are the level of language capability required and the pan-European comparability of qualifications (fairly interchangeable). Teachers ask most often about studying in the EU, funding, and whether they could teach abroad. Sixth-formers can find out about jobs for a year or longer, perhaps as assistants in German schools, and they can discover whether their projected higher education qualifications will be of long-term use in Europe. Many answers to questions of this sort will be dealt with by Careers Europe's showpiece computer programs, Socrates (higher education and schools), and Leonardo (vocational training).

Outside the exhibition Mr Carey speaks of "very specific enquiries, such as how do you go about restoring frescoes in Italy, or training to be an opera singer in Denmark". Careers Europe functions by subscription, and answers all questions.

Quite near Germany but with a cheaper fare from London (Pounds 33.50 return), the University of Aberdeen is among many higher education establishments exhibiting at the fair. Dr Jennifer Carter says about a third of their students come from the South, and "a worthwhile number of enquiries" is made during the exhibition, from "individuals specifically interested in Aberdeen".

Dr Carter is full of praise for the seminar programme, and, like other exhibitors, says the greatest value of the exhibition is that of "conveying information to help young people to make the best decisions for themselves". She emphasises that the objective of the university is not a "recruitment mission".

The Modern Apprenticeships scheme (Department of Employment, 0114 259 4750), which was piloted last year, is set to expand this year, assuming enough employers make places available. Currently, 1,450 young people are training on 15 prototype schemes. It differs from the traditional apprenticeship system in being quicker, more wide-ranging and more flexible, with greater inter-changeability of skills. The average length of time taken by the bright, 16-year-old Modern Apprentice with five GCSE passes is said to be about three years.

Aside from discovering that there is a rank in the Royal Navy (01705 727736) of Chief Yeoman of Signals, if you are visiting the fair be prepared to be astonished by the variety not only of possibilities within the service but also of means of financing them. John Beavis speaks of sponsorship schemes and bursaries for undergraduates, salaried cadetships, and of the range of choices for women.

Like representatives of other services he is keen to assure visitors of the need for new recruits, stressing that the slimming-down is over now. "The 'senior service' offers the possibility of a very responsible career quite young," he says, "computers do most of the donkey work." Hopefully leaving the signalling to the yeomen.

The Local Government Management Board (01582 451166) is worth a look not least because of the scale of its operation. Within local government, you could be doing one of about 500 different jobs in four broad areas: Building and structural (engineering, architecture), Public Protection and Care (environmental health), Information Services (tourism, arts), and Support (finance, law), and doing them within a situation where there are still quite favourable conditions of service, at least in terms of pensions, sick leave, holiday entitlement and working hours.

Tim Hodey of LGMB says the popular view of local government needs to be adjusted to take in the usefulness of local government to communities in terms of service and the maintenance of local amenities. He says that as an employer, local government "offers an alternative to the private sector", and observes that recently career opportunities have broadened beyond just graduates.

Broadening is also going on at Africa Venture (01380 729009), one of the newer gap year organisations. They offer four-month tours for students to do paid work as teaching assistants in Africa, and are in the process of adding Uganda and Zimbabwe to the existing Kenya arrangement. They say they are unusual in offering a four-month scheme, since most gap year organisers go in for eight months or year. Director Peter Bell explains that they also sponsor about 20 Kenyan students as their way of making "a contribution".

STA Travel says many school-leavers travel instead of working straight away, and independent travelling seems to be starting earlier. "It's getting easier for everybody," says marketing executive Sarah Garland, "journeys that five or 10 years ago might have been considered adventurous are now thought relatively ordinary. Parents often want to know where's safe for a first trip. The United States and Australia are popular, as is Thailand." The company offers a free, general travel information guide - call 0171 937 1221.

The organisers of Directions '95 say the level of up-to-date information offered both at the exhibition and in the seminars is of particular relevance to classroom teachers now that more funds are being devoted to careers teaching for younger age groups and decisions about subjects studied seem to become critical even earlier than before. But then they would, wouldn't they, is the conventional reply. Yet it has to be said that unprovoked plaudits are offered from exhibitors and visitors, who go back and back for more.

o Directions '95 - The Schools Fair is sponsored by the The Times, The Sunday Times, and The Times Educational Supplement. It will take place in Hall 2, Wembley Conference and Exhibition Centre, June 21-23 from 9.30am to 4pm daily. Experts from ISCO and local careers office advisors will be on hand at a special Careers Clinic to offer individual careers guidance. The Seminar Programme is free to all on a first come first served basis. ECCTIS 2000, the computer program which can help students decide where to study, will be available. Individual teachers and students welcome; admission is free; school parties must register in advance by contacting Vivienne Herke on 0171 571 6603

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