Don't sacrifice the many for the few;Viewpoint;Opinion
Encouragingly, the DATE??? White Paper, Learning to Succeed, recognises much more strongly than its precursor, The Learning Age Green Paper, the importance of career guidance. In particular, it affirms the importance of ensuring "that information, advice and guidance services remain at the heart of public policy rather than - as has sometimes been the case in the past - on the margins".
More detail has emerged from the Downing Street social exclusion unit report, Bridging the Gap, on a coherent service for everyone over the age of 13.
There are three concerns. First, the extent of the restructuring needed to make the geographical boundaries of the 66 current careers-service contracts in England align with those of the new local learning and skills councils.
Restructuring will also be needed to take account of the demise of training and enterprise councils, which have an important stake in careers services.
Conveniently, most careers-service contracts expire in 2001. It seems unlikely that further competitive tendering will be used, in view of criticism of its costs. Instead, a "preferred bidder" approach may be adopted, based on existing providers meeting specified criteria.
According to the White Paper, "the Government's expectation is that the best careers service companies will play a major role, together with a range of other partners". But how will "best" be measured?
The second concern is that the structure and nature of careers services will be unduly driven by the Government's social inclusion agenda. Careers services have a vital role to play in meeting this important agenda. But all young people need their help, as the White Paper reassuringly affirms. Yet most of the recommendations regarding the structure and operations of the new service seem designed to meet the needs of those at risk of dropping out of the system. There is a real danger that the needs of the few will reduce and distort what is provided for the many.
My third concern is that the split between guidance for young people and for adults seems as rigid as ever. Now that the beginnings of an adult guidance strategy are in place and are to be brought under the aegis of the Learning and Skills Council, opportunities at last exist for the development of a strategy for lifelong access to guidance.
The fact that careers services are core partners in the local lifelong learning partnerships, which are to be responsible for developing local plans strengthens the opportunity. But there is little sign of "joined-up thinking" here in the White Paper, apart from a recognition of the need to ensure that provision for young people and for adults is "coherent".
The opportunities still exist for a an important breakthrough, in line with the White Paper's wider aspirations. But a stronger and broader strategic vision is needed if the opportunity is to be realised.
Tony Watts is director of the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling, a network organisation supported by the Careers Research and Advisory Centre