Mine angry and defrauded young
Anne Weinstock likes to tell it how it is. She describes herself as "an up-front, blunt Yorkshire lass" and is outspoken, articulate and fiercely passionate about subjects close to her heart. The subject exercising that passion is youth. It colours her conversation, whether she's talking about disaffected teenagers whose lives she has seen turned around, or the experiences of her three children on the career ladder, or even harking back to her own younger days.
She is the first chief executive of Connexions, the new careers and advice service for 13 to 19-year-olds. Her appointment this summer was seen as a natural next step for someone whose career has embraced policy-making and working at the sharp end with young people. And she's wasted no time in making her views known. "I've spoken in front of people like Margaret Hodge, David Blunkett and Paul Boateng, and I've said 'Look, with the greatest respect to you guys, young people won't listen to you. They won't listen to any politician telling them to do volunteering because it's good for the soul.' We need to find a way of engaging them that builds on what they're into."
Connexions was launched last February with an annual budget of pound;500 million. It's being piloted in 13 areas and will recruit and train an army of 20,000 mentors. The service goes nationwide next April. It will not be prescriptive, insists Weinstock. Centrally, she heads a team of 150, but Connexions will differ from area to area, building on local partnerships and expertise across the same boundaries as the new local learning and skills councils.
Connexions faced criticism earlier this year from colleges that felt they were not becoming involved enough in its development. Weinstock says this is being redressed: colleges are involved in local Connexions partnerships and management committees, she says, and the Association of Colleges is helping to shape training for personal advisers.
She is is pleased with how the pilots are shaping up. "I'm getting reports of what they're doing and I would like to think people find me accessible. I won't always agree, but I'll have the door open and I'll listen."
Weinstock, 49, draws on her own experience. She tells how, as a young economics graduate from Manchester university, lack of careers guidance sent her down the wrong path into the retail trade. Working in a store's shoe department, her boss told her off for giving too much time to an elderly lady hen she could have been selling more pairs of shoes. "I told him to stick the job," she says, though more colourfully than quoted here.
She went into the voluntary sector, working in a residential unit for homeless girls and then for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. She recalls being shocked at levels of illiteracy among young offenders. In the mid-1980s she became chief executive of the charity Rathbone CI, which helps youngsters with special education or training needs. Latterly, she has been on the board of Manchester Training and Enterprise Council, and has run the Millennium Volunteers project.
Weinstock says she brings a breadth of "hands-on" experience to the job, and she doesn't want to see her staff desk-bound. She also admits that she wondered how her no-nonsense approach would go down with civil servants.
"I think they thought I was a bit off the wall," she says. "Some of them had worked with me - they knew I liked young people. They would have picked that up - I've got a reputation of wanting to get the best out of people, of wanting good people around me who enjoy work."
So what is her vision for Connexions? She believes we have been letting young people down, that there have been too many professionals, too many agencies cutting across each other. The new service's personal adviser will aim to be that youngster's one point of contact for a range of advice and guidance. She also sees young people having their own voice within the new system - in pilot areas youngsters have helped to appoint mentors. At the same time, Weinstock insists that Connexions is not just for the excluded. It will be as relevant to an A-level student needing careers advice. And she sees a role for the young as volunteers. One element of the new service still being developed is Connexions Direct - a service offering round-the-clock internet access to infomation and advice.
Ultimately, Weinstock envisages a service in which a young person trying to decide on a university could use an Internet chat room to get in touch with a student already there. "They might want to go and do maths, and the student at university might say something like this: 'I think maths will give you a very good job, but I don't know what yet. Living is very expensive, the pastoral support is crap, the lecture theatres are very full, there's lots of part-time jobs.' That's what young people want to know. They want practical information because it isn't just the course content - you can get that from a book. They need to talk to other young people who've been there and done it."