The new advice service offers young people help with many problems: sex, housing or their legal rights - as well as finding jobs. Martin Whittaker reports.
Since January, teenagers in Truro, Cornwall, will have seen bright, multi-coloured leaflets dropping through their letterboxes and appearing in schools, colleges and youth clubs. They offer a range of services - everything from advice on careers and education and training to help with housing problems, legal rights and sexual health. They are also offered helplines and the address of the advice service's new centre in Truro, where young people can go for careers information and advice or for confidential support. It is all part of the public face of the new pound;420 million Connexions service for teenagers in England. (Wales has developed a separate structure.) Connexions comes into force alongside the Learning and Skills Act. The Government says its aim is to connect services and policies locally and nationally - and to connect young people's lives with society and their communities.
The South-west is one of 12 areas that will run the service from next month, offering information, advice, guidance and support to all 13 to 19-year-olds. By December, 16 areas will be running Connexions. It will be extended to the rest of the country over the next two years.
Speaking at a recent conference to launch the service in the South-west, Malcolm Wicks, the minister for lifelong learning, said: "At the end of the day, what we are about is providing all 13 to 19-year-oldswith learning options, about the world of work, about careers."
He stresses that Connexions is a universal service, with as much of a role in helping the gifted child who is bored in the classroom as it has in helping the disadvantaged.
"Much of the test of Connexions is how it works in school, how it works in the college, how it's accepted by headteachers and governing bodies and how the personal adviser becomes on the one hand a member of the school team but on the other a rather special person who is independent of the school."
Connexions is designed to cover the same areas as the local learning and skills councils. In Devon and Cornwall (which includes the Scilly Isles), the area is huge - half the size of Wales. Rural issues have to be dealt with. Behind the popular image of Cornwall's beautiful beaches, rugged coastline and stunning scenery lie many areas of disadvantage, says Jenny Rudge, the chief executive-designate of Connexions in the South-west.
"Cornwall is one of the poorest areas in Europe, let alone the UK, with a labour market that doesn't work for young people," she says. "We have a culture of underachievement and low aspirations because the scener gets the better of career ambitions."
Torbay in Devon is a popular holiday destination. But it also has a big transient population, and a teenage pregnancy rate that is nearly twice the national average.
The local Connexions set up the Teenage Parents' Project to offer support to mothers and mums-to-be aged 13 to 19. Workers from the relevant agencies meet regularly to discuss the mothers' needs. And a personal adviser is available should any of the young mums need advice or support. The service is delivered by a partnership of careers, youth services and education, but it also involves health authorities and the police.
There has been some anxiety over the role of the personal adviser. In the South-west, the complexity of the role has been fully recognised: personal advisers have been working with teenagers in schools and colleges to offer support for education and training.
Connexions recognises that it may take up to 40 hours of contact before an adviser achieves a breakthrough with a young person. Consequently, there is a question mark over whether there are enough people with the right skills to help the young - across the spectrum, from the gifted to the disadvantaged.
Malcolm Wicks is conscious that in some areas - in London and the South-east - there are difficulties recruiting the right numbers of professionals. "But if partnerships use their imagination and reach out to a range of different peopleI then we can crack the problem."
Tom Wylie, head of the National Youth Agency, sees a role for youth services both inside and outside Connexions. In particular, he highlights the needs of a neglected age group. "It's the disadvantaged, disaffected 19 to 23-year-old who the adult system doesn't really want to handle," he says. "They're maybe not learning in college and they fall off the Connexions edge because it'll only go to 19. " It will also have seamless links with post-19 services, says Anne Weinstock, Connexions chief executive. "We are working to get this in place swiftly."
WHAT IS CONNEXIONS?
* Connexions is the new advice and guidance service for all13 to19-year-olds. It is intended to provide an improved universal careers service and give teenagers extra support.
* The scheme is being phased in over the next three years. Sixteen pilot areas should begin running the service in the coming year. It will create thousands of personal advisers to give impartial advice to disadvantaged teenagers.
* This autumn sees the launch of the Connexions Card - a smart card that can be used to reward participation and attainment in education and to monitor attendance.
* For further information see the Connexions website:www.connexions.gov.uk.