Careering out of control

9th September 2005 at 01:00
The much-delayed Green Paper Youth Matters heralds fundamental changes to the ways in which career guidance for young people is organised in England.

Traditionally, such provision has been based on a partnership between schools and colleges and external careers services - recently provided by Connexions. The external services have assured access to impartial career guidance, closer and more extensive links with the labour market and with employers, and a degree of entitlement.

The Green Paper subsumes career guidance within "information, advice and guidance" (IAG), covering lifestyle as well as career choices. It allocates the primary responsibility for this to schools and colleges, in collaboration with children's trusts. Colleges are encouraged to collaborate but reserve the right to make their own arrangements, subject to meeting quality standards.

Connexions is effectively to disappear as a national service, though some local services will remain, and local authorities are encouraged to retain the Connexions brand. Colleges can, if they wish, buy in services from Connexions or other providers. But the Green Paper places ultimate service-purchasing powers in the hands of schools and colleges, and permits them, if they so wish, to provide all their services internally. This means that assurances of quality in general and of impartiality in particular rest with the robustness of the proposed quality arrangements. The test case for these arrangements is the well-documented tendency of schools with sixth forms to favour their own provision over alternative routes in the guidance they provide pre-16. The proposed quality measures will only counter this if they are strong, clear-cut, and robustly enforced. The position adopted has clearly been significantly influenced by the so-called "end-to-end review" of careers education and guidance, carried out in spring of last year, and now belatedly published alongside the Green Paper.

Such reviews focus on the "delivery chain". They do not evaluate the underlying policy.

The review's diagnosis of the weaknesses in current provision is clear and cogent. It notes that Connexions has made good progress with targeted services for young people at risk but that it does not have the resources also to deliver careers education and guidance for all young people. It concludes that the current arrangements are not sustainable.

The prescription, however, does not flow logically from the diagnosis. The key recommendation is that the greatest potential for improving delivery lies in driving up the quality and relevance of careers education in schools. This is not supported by any cogent arguments or evidence, and indeed is contradicted by evidence cited within the review itself.

In stark contrast with its extensive attention to school provision, the review pays no attention to ways of strengthening the external careers services currently provided by Connexions. It notes that such services have been reduced, but appears implicitly to view their contribution to careers programmes in schools and colleges as being beyond redemption.

Nor is any attention paid to one of the main available policy options: to separate the career guidance element of Connexions from its targeted support, and to locate this element not within schools and colleges but within an all-age guidance service, as in other parts of the UK. The positive findings of recent independent reviews both in Scotland and in Wales contrast starkly with the negative conclusions of the end-to-end review. Yet the latter review does not reject this option for England: it does not even consider it.

In responding to the Green Paper from a career guidance perspective, there would seem to be a number of broad options, including arguing for an all-age career guidance service; or for the retention of Connexions.

The relative desirability of these different options seems in inverse proportion to the feasibility of persuading the Government to adopt them.

Arguably, there is little point in pressing for options that the Government is unlikely to support. On the other hand, to concede the optimum options without even putting the case for them would seem a betrayal of principle.

Professor Tony Watts is an international policy consultant.

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