Licensing is poised to take over from competitive tendering. Harvey McGavin and Ian Nash report.
The careers service is in line for reform as the Government considers how to improve this central plank of its flagship Welfare to Work and University for Industry initiatives.
The publication of a discussion document, Guidance Through Partnership, has been delayed while Labour seeks feedback from the agencies that have run the service since it was put out to tender nearly five years ago.
The Government is known to favour a licensing system to replace competitive tendering once contracts begin to expire over the next few years.
"We don't want bidding all over again," admitted a source at the Department for Education and Employment. "We have to try to develop new arrangements."
With 66 services taking the place of a centrally-coordinated regional network since privatisation, Government officials fear the service is suffering an identity crisis. The DFEE is considering reintroducing a corporate logo and "rebranding" the service.
Guidance for Partnership was the first of the education and training consultation papers to be ready but the last to be published. The delays have angered many in the careers service who blame cost implications rather than criticisms of any specific proposals.
One senior adviser said: "They are terrified of issuing a blank cheque." Another said that the latest DFEE guide on individual learning accounts states explicitly that ministers expect careers providers to be mentioned in development proposals.
"How strongly will this message come across in the final version of Guidance for Partnership? We want advice for all, not just a service targeted at disaffected kids and unemployed adults.
Although a survey last year found near unanimous approval of the new system among practitioners, careers specialists say there is room for improvement.
Tony Watts, director of the National Institute for Careers Education and Guidance, believes that more can be done.
"The competitive climate that tendering engendered did mean that the strong networks of sharing and good practice were eroded. A move to licensing will help that," said Mr Watts.
The contracting system, with its duty to the "core business" of pupils and school-leavers, could damage the service for adult workers looking to change career.
"The problem now is that we have a patchwork of different kinds of providers in different areas. It's a problem particularly in terms of the careers advice role outside the core contract, ie with adults," said Mr Watts "If we are to move towards lifelong access to guidance, then the careers service's role in relation to that is critical."