Adult guidance in education is enjoying a heightened profile that will be enhanced by the UK launch in Edinburgh yesterday (Thursday) of the European Year of Lifelong Learning. For Ann Southwood, Scottish chair of the National Association for the Educational Guidance of Adults and development officer on the Scottish Office's adult educational guidance initiative, a higher profile is welcome. "Employment and redundancy are such big issues," she says.
Another challenge has been the recent privatisation of the careers service. "It has been a good opportunity. Employers can now ask us to provide redundancy and pre-retirement counselling and staff development and training," Ms Southwood says.
With the notion of a "job for life" in fast decline, the need to seek out and maximise a range of opportunities has spread beyond the population of peripheral housing schemes to white-collar workers. The change is reflected in enquiries, many from the over-25s, to the adult guidance arm of Career Development Edinburgh and Lothians, where Ms Southwood is co-ordinator of the adult guidance team.
But while learning to survive in today's hire-and-fire environment is important, lifetime education, in Ms Southwood's words, "is not just about work and learning about work. It's about looking at your life as a whole and spending time developing yourself, whether this be through further or higher education or though library links or open learning.
"There are so many opportunities available for learning, training and education. The difficulty is people don't know about them. Our job, as a guidance organisation and as guidance practitioners, is to help people find out what is there and to help them make a choice about those opportunities."
She adds, however: "Resources are thin on the ground. There is no Scottish Office money for adult guidance through careers guidance companies. We have to look to local authorities and to the European Union, and to running services which generate income."
Ms Southwood's own approach to career development is instructive. A Yorkshire woman, she took a geography degree at Middlesex Polytechnic and rejecting her first idea of teaching opted for adult guidance, which offered the hope of "helping people make something of their lives".
Her way in, she hoped, was through postgraduate training at the then Napier College in Edinburgh. Making a career choice is one thing, but finding a job is another, as she discovered. Her first employment was as a care assistant in a Church of Scotland home for the rehabilitation of women alcoholics and drug addicts. After further training, this time in youth and community work, she found a vacancy with Lanarkshire careers service and began her probationary adult guidance year.
After 18 months she moved back to Edinburgh to work with Lothian's careers service and spent five years from 1985 seconded to the Wester Hailes Opportunity Trust. The trust had its work cut out shoehorning the disadvantaged and the discouraged into the world of work. But it was a challenge Ms Southwood relished. Preaching the basic tenet of adult guidance she recalls: "They needed a lot of support and encouragement but our job was to help these people find out, and gain access to, the range of opportunities available to them."
By the standards of adult education, yesterday's event at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre was expansive and expensive, graced by the presence of Edith Cresson, the European Commissioner and controversial former French prime minister.
The question is how it and the good intentions of the European Year of Lifelong Learning relate to the needs of ordinary Scots in and out of work. But as recognition for the efforts of Ann Southwood and colleagues in adult guidance the limelight can only be good.