Gateway's databases point students in the right direction, writes Neil Munro.
Despite its name and avowed purpose of making careers and courses more accessible, the location of the Continuing Education Gateway in Glasgow seems to be kept a closely guarded secret.
Tucked away behind the leafy greenery of a road in Pollokshields, the offices do not even boast their own name-plate. Visitors have to take it on trust that the ancient sign bearing the legend "Strathclyde Regional Council Home Craft Centre" is just a front for a burgeoning high-tech world of databases holding vast amounts of career information on jobs, education and training.
The computerised systems are linked to a network of 300 bases in all secondary schools, colleges, careers offices and unemployed resource centres in the former Strathclyde area and in some community education offices.
The system now also has Plan-IT on Gateway's site on the Internet. This is a "workhorse" database which contains details of all educational qualifications, college and university courses in Scotland and national and local job vacancies. One benefit is that users at any of the 300 access sites can get through to the Internet pages of all the Scottish universities and some further education colleges .
Sham Nath, Gateway's manager who is former principal careers officer in Strathclyde, believes his operation is unique in its size, breadth and scope. "I cannot think of any aspect of careers that we're not involved with - serving the needs of pupils and adults, providing access to opportunities from training to higher education and work experience, and updating labour market trends. "
Mr Nath is anxious to stress that Gateway complements the careers service, reaching parts the traditional system cannot reach. Careers, for example, is not core-funded to provide adult guidance whereas Gateway was set up specifically to do so and now runs such a service with 11 specialist staff which Mr Nath believes is "second to none". The HMI report in April on Supporting Lifelong Learning agreed. Some 13,000 enquiries were handled by Gateway's freephone helpline last year of which 88 per cent came from adults.
Mr Nath also points out that Gateway acts as a single point of information on careers and courses which is updated every year and disseminated in various forms, including the mammoth 550-page handbook on Scottish Careers and Pathways whose 1996-97 edition has just been published. This saves each college and university from being pestered by a plethora of enquiries.
All this for an expenditure of Pounds 1 million and a staff of 51. It is a far cry from its inception in 1989 when Strathclyde Region was concerned that adults were not getting the right if any, advice on job and educational prospects; retention rates in colleges were therefore causing alarm. Gateway started with a staff of three and a Pounds 70,000 budget to reverse that trend.
Although its initial aim was to set up a freephone helpline and local guidance networks for adults, it soon outstripped that remit. "We are now an all-age service," Mr Nath says. "Once you set up a helpline for adults, you have to provide the information to back it up. Once you do that, the system becomes applicable to young people."
Similarly, although Gateway was born to serve Strathclyde, it required national information for its local customers which enabled it to provide a Scotland-wide service. It now acts as the clearing house for all further and higher education course vacancies. The organisation has also put its Strathclyde past behind it, signing contracts with Careers Central to provide a freephone line in the former Central Region and with the Tayside careers service to make its database available to all secondary schools.
Mr Nath's new career as super salesman and contracts manager is made more intricate by the establishment of the 29 new education authorities which in turn changed the composition and constitutions of the arriviste careers companies. The opportunities to sell services furth of Strathclyde, however, is one of the plusses to these changes.
But there is no denying that the replacement of one education authority in Gateway's Strathclyde heartland by 12 councils has not made life any easier. Gateway now has a plethora of agreements with these successor councils which it hopes to finalise by next Tuesday. It will run adult guidance for all the west of Scotland councils except the three Ayrshires and Inverclyde and it expects to have contracts with all 12 except East and South Ayrshire and the two Lanarkshires to provide the work experience database known as Prowess which matches pupil choices to opportunities with 8,000 employers (South Ayrshire has pulled out, claiming it can offer furth work experience system for less cost).
"The challenge now is to tailor our services to meet the varying needs of more authorities," says Mr Nath. "And the more services we can sell, the more we can minimise costs to our customers."
The organisation now has a board of management under the chairmanship of Ronnie O'Connor, Glasgow's senior depute director of education.
Perhaps he will be able to use the authority of his office to do something about that name-plate.