PARTNERSHIPS are playing an important role in providing careers information in the Black Country. A network of agencies - FE colleges, local training and enterprise councils and ethnic minority groups, help deliver advice through 34 information points throughout Sandwell.
Prospect Career Services, which operates in Sandwell as well as north and south London, now wants to set up similar networks in other parts of the West Midlands. Its operations manager, Sue Michaelides, said its approach has proved a good model in an ethnically diverse area. The network runs careers information points in libraries and community organisations including the local African-Caribbean resource centre.
"From the client's point of view, they've got choice as to where they go, the service delivery is throughout the borough and, because it's a range of organisations involved, then you're obviously meeting the needs of community groups."
John Cunningham, the training and enterprise council's lifelong learning manager said: "It's working very well. We are particularly encouraging community suppliers to join the network, but we have set standards and they have to achieve those standards before they become part of the network."
The Government sees partnerships as the key to promoting learning in communities and reducing social exclusion. It expects local plans to be operational by September.
Areas such as Sandwell are already well down that road, with a steering group of leading partners, including employers, colleges, universities, and careers and guidance.
In other areas collaboration has been more complicated. Gloucestershire and the former county of Avon has been carved up into unitary authorities. "In all the areas in what was Avon you are going to find involvement from local authorities, TEC, colleges, further and higher education, ourselves and employers," says Stephanie Delaney of Learning Partnership West (LPW). "We're building on work that's been going on for quite a long time."
In one partnership, LPW collaborates with Bath amp; North East Somerset district council and Norton Radstock College to run "learning shops". "Because there are three of us working together on it, you can make it happen. Somebody's putting in on the money side, somebody's putting in on the premises side and we're putting the support people into the shops."
Learning partners do not always make the best bedfellows. Desna McAll, vice-principal of Cirencester College, Gloucestershire, laments the strained relationships with some 11-18 schools over making available careers information relating to the college. This year, she says, the college's prospectus was not circulated to schools following disagreements over the wording.
"It was suggested that we might take out things like 'The college provides a more adult atmosphere than school'. But it's a fact. Our students say to us that it's more adult than it is at school. That's why people come here."
The college is developing its own website to offer course information direct to students and parents. "It's censorship isn't it, really," says Desna McCall. "In terms of lifelong learning partnerships it would be wonderful to work with people who had shared aims and shared commitment."
Maureen Burrell, general secretary of Careers Services National Association (CSNA) and development manager of Leicestershire Careers and Guidance Services, acknowledges that partnerships are not always plain sailing.
"The downside of working with lots of other agencies is that first of all you've really got to understand where everyone is coming from, and what their organisation's aims and objectives are.
"The other issue that people do get concerned about is that it may well be more meetings, more organisations to work with."
But ultimately she believes that partnerships will bring an integrated service, one that will improve the quality and provision of careers advice.
"Although it's still early days, the feedback we're getting from our members within the CSNA is that careers services have got places on the boards of the partnerships and that things are now starting to happen.
"I think it gives an opportunity for careers advice, for careers guidance, to be seen as an integral part of learning rather than something that's separately delivered.
"And it does give us an opportunity to improve the quality and to make the people who actually need this service better able to access it."