Good careers advice is at last being given a high priority by ministers and local education authorities such as Leeds but, as Paul Fisher reports, turning round a Cinderella service will not prove an easy target.
Careers education and guidance is becoming an object of desire. The dowdy creature, which got its statutory suit of clothes when the 1973 Employment and Training Act made local authority funded careers services mandatory, is now being serenaded with recognition and extra funding.
School careers departments are also under the spotlight as employment and education ministers insist that careers advice should be at the heart of economic as well as education policy. The new beauty is framed in terms of choice and market imperatives, but these are hardly alien concepts to people whose careers are to get others started in their careers.
A key player is the new Education Secretary who has an impeccable CV for this part of her job. Gillian Shephard began her working life as a Norfolk careers adviser specialising in A-levels, and as Employment Secretary she pushed through legislation shifting careers advice services from local to central government funding. The 1992 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act laid plans for a radical change in management structure by putting Britain's careers services up for tender. It is not, however, a set of prescriptions anything like those of the Education Reform Act for the Government is demanding more and better of the same.
Schools will expand careers education ("giving pupils awareness of themselves and the world" is the phrase) and the revamped careers service will concentrate on the business of giving "informed choices".
"As choice expands," says Mrs Shephard, "good careers education and guidance becomes more important." She repeated this unexceptionable article of faith on the same platform as the Employment Secretary, Michael Portillo. The two ministers offered their public display of belief in careers advice at the recent launch of "Better Choices", a booklet spelling out their requirements for targets, reviews, evaluations and training.
There's money behind the management rhetoric with commitments to raise expenditure from Pounds 144 million to more than Pounds 200m a year. The Competitiveness White Paper pledged Pounds 87m over three years, mainly for Year 11 work. Another Pounds 34m a year is going to Years 9 and 10 guidance and in-service careers training will be beefed up with GEST (Grants for Educational Support and Training) money.
Deregulation is part of the new deal and, in England and Wales, 135 careers offices will be reduced to 80 larger units. The first 13 went private last April though, from the Government's viewpoint, the exercise was a partial failure. The only bids for the five-year contracts came from existing services, mostly in conjunction with local training and enterprise councils (TECs). There's been more outside commercial interest in the next round of bidding with 100 proposals for 42 English regions plus eight in Wales. In addition to local authorityTEC bids are others from the likes of Henry Boot, Grand Metropolitan and Nord-Anglia. These will come on stream next April and final bids will be invited in the spring. It could be bloody, particularly when London's 33 LEA-based careers services are shoehorned into nine TEC areas.
Those getting the grey hairs are careers service managers obliged to practise the economic survival lessons they have preached. Mike Clark, president of the Institute of Careers Guidance (ICG), reports that his members, while worried, are not unduly alarmed. "Bearing in mind the confusion and change," he says, "morale is not low." Neither should it be as the ICG's membership, which includes 4,437 qualified with a Diploma of Careers Guidance, is set to increase by at least 300.
Careers advisers are, however, displaying trepidation about accountability. Employment Department inspectors are being briefed to count Year 11 Action Plans, one-on-one interviews, group sessions and parents' evenings. There are also ideological concerns as the public service ethos is scuppered. Mr Clark voices his members' fears.
"How do we remain professional within a commercial environment?" he asks. "As in the NHS, we could be faced with the dilemma of whether we put clients first. Disadvantaged groups like young offenders and immigrants with language problems may suffer if company efficiency is the aim."
He says that maintaining impartiality could be another problem. Here he alludes to disputes that have dogged the recent relationship between schools and their outside advisers.
The criticism from the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) is that some schools retain sixth-formers by obscuring the A-level options at further education colleges down the road. Employment Department officials claim that careers services freed of local authority influence find objectivity easier and one of the second-round bidders goes further. Devon and Cornwall TEC's pitch includes a promise to "publicly identify schools which give good advice". By implication, it will finger those that don't.
Tough talk from a TEC which, like the vast majority of TECs, is in the thick of the reorganisation. The 82 TEC regions largely coincide with the careers service's enlarged areas of operation and the Employment Department has tacitly encouraged the younger, more entrepreneurial thrusters to make bids. The TECs have a dilemma best expressed by Graham Hoyle, the chief executive of Gloucester TEC and head of Pathfinder Trust Ltd (formerly the Gloucester Careers Service).
"TECs have moved in with some reluctance," he says. They were set up as training wholesalers and "any move into direct delivery of services compromises that original objective". But the TECs, like their newfound ex-local authority partners, have gritted their teeth and gone for the money and the action.
However, all in this brave new world is not untrammelled Government largesse because the TEC's ability to fund education-business links plus teacher placements in industry and Compacts is in jeopardy, although there is talk of a rescue bid. Money for these and other careers-related initiatives comes from the Single Regeneration Budget which, according to TEC estimates, may drop from Pounds 22m to Pounds 8.5m. So here is a more familiar tale of cuts, and its outcome awaits a late January announcement.
For schools, the changes are creating little anxiety. True, OFSTED inspectors loom with directives to evaluate "curricular and careers guidance". True, also, that teachers will have to cope with another document from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority "suggesting (to quote Gillian Shephard) ways careers education can be integrated into the revised schools curriculum from 5-19". Nevertheless, Graham Robb, president of the National Association of Careers Guidance Teachers (NACGT), is sanguine.
"These initiatives have put careers education and guidance on the map. Now the trick is to work together to achieve our common objective: the best possible preparation of young people for adult life."
By tradition, careers people have faced a trickle of abuse and their two professional bodies have been honest enough to highlight deficiencies.
A recent ICGNACGT survey revealed the skimpy overall service the Government wishes to improve: 12 per cent of Year 11 pupils get no careers education; 80 per cent of GCSE pupils get only 10 hours' timetabled careers education a year; 4 per cent of careers teachers have an adequate training. Rumblings from within were echoed by clamour from everyone from the CBI (whose director said one in three of the unemployed could have jobs if they'd been given effective advice) to the TUC. Now, finally, the funding and the political will might be in place to right these wrongs.
"Tinkering at the edges," is what Valerie Jarvis calls it. She's a National Institute of Economic and Social Research officer who has just written a paper claiming that other European countries manage a smoother transition from school to skilled work.
"The British lack of focus on careers education and the lack of occupationally-specific information leaves many youngsters at a distinct disadvantage," she says. She stresses the needs of the 33 per cent who leave school at 16 and the general reluctance to guide particular children toward particular jobs and training programmes.
A partial response is to point to National Audit Office research quantifying the wastage of the high university drop-out rates resulting from ill-chosen courses. One could also repeat the career establishment call of advice for all, from the beginning of school and beyond.
But Ms Jarvis has fundamental criticisms of a system which she sees as inward-looking and hooked on progress via exams at the expense of training.
While careers people may well be shackled by the dogma of academic success, nobody now damns their work as an irrelevance. Its long process of acceptance into education's mainstream has paralleled the functional assertion of education as a preparation for work. The question now is how deeply this view will permeate - that, and whether careers funding will continue to flow.