With mounting evidence of its failings, the Government's careers guidance service is up for a rethink. Martin Whittaker reports.
Most further education colleges are dipping into their own pockets to supplement Connexions careers advice and guidance services, says the Association of Colleges.
Interim results of a survey by the association show that 90 per cent of colleges in England are having to fund additional advisers for students aged 19 and under.
The findings will add to growing criticism of Connexions, the pound;441 million-a-year service set up three years ago as a one-stop-shop support service for teenagers.
Critics say it has failed to provide universal support, focusing on those not in learning or work at the expense of general careers guidance in schools and colleges.
The Association of Colleges carried out its survey after FE colleges reported reduced support for advice and guidance.
Colleges were asked how many hours of careers advice and guidance each student aged 19 and under receives from Connexions each year. Asked whether they supplement this with advisers paid for by the college, 63 out of 70 respondents said yes.
The AoC's director of curriculum and quality, Judith Norrington, said:
"Support seems to be diminishing for students across the board, with the exception of those who have a particular range of difficulties, or are in the NEET group (not in education, employment or training).
"Colleges are having to put in additional resources to extend their own independent advice and guidance. Colleges aren't funded to provide this, so the money is coming out of resources for learning programmes."
Cutbacks to Connexions of pound;35 million announced by the Department for Education and Skills in February have further fuelled the debate over the service's future. The DfES is taking pound;25 million of this from a funding pot set aside to help Connexions partnerships with VAT costs.
Partnerships in turn have been asked to become more tax efficient by making local authorities, which operate under different tax rules, the lead body.
But this has left some partnerships having to make huge savings. The National Association of Connexions Partnerships (NACP) has written to Education Secretary Charles Clarke, protesting that the DfES is moving this funding away from support for young people to implement its new child protection agenda in the Green Paper, Every Child Matters.
NACP executive director Carolyn Caldwell said: "People are working very hard to avoid hitting front-line services. And it's not an even way of spreading the pain. Some partnerships have big money to save."
Figures giving partnerships' VAT estimates for the coming financial year, obtained independently by The TES, show that the hardest hit is Connexions Greater Manchester, which faces a shortfall of more than pound;2.9 million. Some Connexions partnerships are seeking legal advice over the cutbacks.
One has already spent pound;35,000 on accountancy and legal fees. "All this time we are taking our eye off the ball," said an insider. "Integrated services provision is in danger of imploding before our very eyes."
At Bolton community college, which works with Connexions Greater Manchester, advice and guidance services for teenagers are just getting into their stride following difficulties recruiting personal advisers.
"It would be bad to cut back now," said Ava Lefton, the college's learner services manager. "They need time to develop and really benefit young people."
A proposed Government review of careers advice and guidance in England has been welcomed by the sector's professionals. The Guidance Council, which recently took on a campaigning role for the sector, has called for an all-age advice and guidance service for England and national coherence to bring it in line with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Its chief executive Cathy Bereznicki said the review of Connexions is timely given the stress on guidance in Mike Tomlinson's interim report on 14-19 reform.
"Any major cuts in services to young people are worrying," she said. "We don't know how it is going to impact on them, or whether it will mean more targeting of resources on those whom Connexions deem to be at risk at the expense of the majority."
Aidan Relf of the Association of Learning Providers said: "There's both a diminishing quality and quantity of good careers and education guidance in schools, thus many young people are being given poor advice on their options after 16."
A DfES spokesperson said its "end-to-end review" of careers education and guidance will focus on support for young people to help them make choices for the 14-19 phase of education.
"The review will also consider the interaction between the support services with a view to assessing the extent to which a coherent package of support is available for all young people," he said.