Faces of things to come

7th September 2001 at 01:00
Neil Munro begins a four-page special report on the shake-up facing the careers service, as the Institute of Career Guidance holds its UK conference in Edinburgh this weekend.

The expressions "turning point" and "crossroads" are much over-used, but there is little doubt that the careers service is facing the kind of transformation that justifies them.

From April, Careers Scotland will be a reality, covering four organisations made up of the 17 private careers companies, 20 education business partnerships, 22 adult guidance networks and 22 local learning partnerships. This has allowed Wendy Alexander, the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, to return the careers service to the public sector while symbolically torching a few quangos.

Although Careers Scotland will be the national voice for standards, it will be devolved and aligned with the 22 local enterprise companies. So the national body will, in effect, be split between Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. There will, therefore, be two chief executives: Christina Allon, formerly head of Grampian Careers, in charge of lowland Scotland, and Catriona Eagle, who was at the helm of the Argyll and Bute Careers Partnership and will preside north of the Highland line.

The particular line management within Scottish Enterprise is telling. Mrs Allon's boss will be Alan Sinclair, senior director of learning and skills. He will also have under his wing the new Future Skills Scotland, which aims to improve labour market information. Careers Scotland, therefore, will be firmly embedded as much in the Government's job creation machinery as in its lifelong learning agenda.

Although these arrangements have inevitably given rise to suspicions that the careers service is about to become the handmaiden of employers, Ms Alexander was adamant at its launch in January that "impartiality of careers advice will be fundamental".

Mrs Allon and Ms Eagle, too, accentuate the positive, suggesting that "for the first time, the guidance community will have a direct opportunity to influence skills and learning policy, and provision will benefit from close links to Future Skills Scotland". Working closely with the education world as well as the business world will be a priority, they say.

To suggest that this complex set-up - in which new professional relationships will have to be forged across four organisations - will present a huge challenge for the new management and an uncertain future for the 1,200 staff is, self-evidently, an understatement.

"Many people will find the change unsettling," Mrs Allon and Ms Eagle acknowledge, "but we believe that it will result in a more coherent, focused, quality-assured service for individuals and other customer groups, as well as providing a broader range of personal development opportunities for staff as employees of the enterprise agencies."

Apprehension may be cushioned a little by the largest ever boost to careers spending in Scotland, doubling the current pound;24 million combined budget in three years. The extra funds will be made up of pound;9 million to create an all-age careers guidance service and pound;15 million for "inclusiveness" measures arising out of recommendations in the September 1999 Beattie report on post-16 education and training for disadvantaged school-leavers.

The new leadership is determined not to impose solutions. Local services "will need to demonstrate sensitivity to the needs of local communities and users," say Mrs Allon and Ms Eagle, "and a key challenge will be to get the right balance between that local responsiveness and the requirement for national consistency and agreed priorities."

The changes contrast significantly with those elsewhere in Britain. Scotland is setting up an all-age careers guidance service within the economic development framework of the enterprise agencies. Wales is also adopting an all-age service but within education and lifelong learning. England is developing the Connexions youth service with social inclusion as a priority (page 9).

Malcolm Barron, president of the Institute of Career Guidance, who will preside over the Edinburgh conference this weekend, welcomes this diversity as "healthy". But he observes that, despite coming from different starting points, there are common practices emerging in all three countries. The personal adviser envisaged for young people in England, for example, is similar to the key worker recommended by the Beattie report in Scotland.

Mr Barron, who is head of the careers service in Fife, is in no doubt that the new all-age service in Scotland has come of age. "Serious resources are now going into the careers service because there is a realisation that it underpins other Government strategies of raising attainment, improving social inclusion and encouraging lifelong learning.

"If you believe in lifelong learning, you've got to believe in lifelong careers guidance."

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