Listen to those whose job is careers

25th March 2005 at 00:00
So Connexions, the "flagship policy for youth," to quote Tony Blair, is to be axed as a failure with pound;80 million of redundancies.

It was Napoleon who said: "There are no bad soldiers, only bad generals."

But the price, according to The TES (March 11), is to be paid by the soldiers. These are workers who have done what has been asked of them while under fire, much of it from those ultimately responsible for the creation, direction and resourcing of Connexions partnerships. They are the front-line staff from public, private, voluntary and community groups who have got on with the gritty reality of doing what is best for young people.

Professionals working in youth support services have often been accused of possessing a "silo mentality" which does not encourage or even allow them to work together in support of young clients.

Contrary to ministerial opinion, multi-disciplinary approaches are not a recent invention and examples of youth workers in educational welfare teams or career advisers in youth offending teams have been around for some time.

This did not come about because a policy adviser had another bright idea but because organisations recognised the need for focused, expert services for each young person and the benefits of working together.

The debate on how to provide services to support teenagers has already started. There are flaws in the structure now. These are not new, nor are they irreparable, but those who pointed to them at the outset were ignored or more often denigrated.

The TES itself made that point in its editorial (January 28), reminding its readers that the Government had failed to listen to professionals in the field in designing Connexions in the first place, a mistake it seems hell-bent on repeating now it wants change.

Yes, there is to be a much-delayed green paper, but from the steady Department for Education and Skills information drip some key decisions appear to have been taken already. Again they have been made without listening to those with front-line experience and knowledge of actually delivering Connexions.

If true, that would be a huge mistake. In all of this what cannot be denied is that young people want and need support delivered by real people with whom they can engage, and in whom they can develop trust and build confidence. They need people they can rely on in the knowledge that it is their interest as the client that drives the information, advice and guidance. We know that to be true of young teenagers.

Advances in media technology, which seem to dazzle ministers, bring wonderful opportunities to provide support in innovative and exciting ways.

But, as with teaching, there is no substitute for the real professional.

There is a clear need to provide services for the minority of greatly disadvantaged young people, but this must be in addition to, and not instead of, differentiated support services for all young people.

Mike Tomlinson got it absolutely right. If every child matters then every child must be given the opportunity to make the most of their abilities, including the majority who are not about to turn to a life of crime, drugs or other anti-social behaviour.

For most young people, their parents, peers and teachers will be a great influence on their lives, helping to develop their ideas, aspirations, and motivation. The role of the guidance practitioners in this context is as much about ensuring that influence is properly-informed, open to challenge, stimulating and rewarding as it is about empowering the individual on whom their help is focused.

This cannot be done effectively without skilled, knowledgeable and competent practitioners who are recognisably free of provider and institutional interest. That is the clear evidence of the DfES career education and guidance review concluded in 2004 - which the department has to date refused to release It is the clear evidence from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report that compares how career guidance services are provided around the world. Even the World Bank has recognised the economic and social benefits of good career advice.

The Government assumes the European Union presidency this year. In its May 2004 resolution on lifelong access to career guidance, the EU provided a definition of what it meant by career guidance. This was agreed by UK ministers and wholeheartedly endorsed by UK professional associations and representative bodies.

What is the Government's position now on this ministerial resolution that every citizen of an EU member state has a clear entitlement to career guidance? With children's trusts in development and policy on youth support the subject of future consultation, now is not the time to destabilise or destroy existing young people's services or to orchestrate morale-sapping "official" leaks.

The Government should not rush at this. It needs to have the self-confidence and maturity to know it should stop, look and, above all, listen before crossing this road.

Liam Duffy is president of the Institute of Careers Guidance

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