An ability to navigate the system is a key skill for advisers. Martin Whittaker reports
Think of Devon and Cornwall and you think of rolling countryside, rugged coastline and sandy beaches. You don't think of poor transport, a low wage economy and high rates of teenage pregnancy. Beyond its stereotyped image, these are some of the issues faced by the area's teenagers as they progress through school and college and into employment.
Connexions, the Government's advice and guidance service for 13 to 19-year-olds, was set up four years ago to help young people on this journey, and Devon and Cornwall was among the first areas to implement it.
But it has had mixed success and is effectively to disappear as a national service. A new youth green paper, Youth Matters, proposes allowing schools and colleges to buy in information, advice and guidance for students. From next year, Connexions will be managed by local authorities, though the Government wants them to keep the "brand".
In the far South West, Connexions has been a success. An Ofsted inspection declared Connexions Cornwall and Devon to be a good partnership, meeting most national targets for participation and achievement. Last year, it exceeded its target for engaging young people not in education, employment or training, the so-called NEET group, by 20 per cent.
Connexions was set up as a "one-stop shop" for teenagers, brokering a range of services through partnership. But one criticism levelled nationally is that its services have been targeted at the NEET group at the expense of careers advice and guidance in schools and colleges.
Connexions Cornwall and Devon was launched in 2001 and was based on an existing careers service company. Jenny Rudge, its chief executive, says its personal advisers, who visit secondary schools, special schools and colleges, are trained to undertake all aspects of career guidance, as well as an intensive support role. "We took seriously the Government's view that young people shouldn't be passed around the system," she said.
It covers an area half the size of Wales, with much of its population in rural communities. Lack of public transport is a barrier to young people seeking opportunities post-16. Devon and Cornwall also suffers from a brain drain, as more able students leave to go to university. And some parts, such as Torbay, have high rates of teenage pregnancy.
Connexions works in the area across several strands. It has 240 personal advisers covering schools and further education colleges. The service supplies careers information and resources. Advisers undertake group activities and individual interviews, and work with teachers to diagnose and assess youngsters' needs and ensure they get the right level of service.
Connexions also has teams of specialists who support pupils with special needs and learning disabilities. Each personal adviser is allocated a combination of schools - some work with a secondary school and a special school, or with a school and an FE college. They might spend most of the week in school or college, but the job also involves linking with employers and training providers, managing their case loads and tracking students'
When the Government launched Connexions, one concern was a shortage of people with the right qualities to become personal advisers. Jenny Rudge says this has not happened in Devon and Cornwall. They come from a variety of backgrounds, including teaching, education welfare, youth work, careers and the recruitment sector.
What qualities do personal advisers need? "They have to be non-judgmental,"
she said. "They have to understand that they must be focused on the individual, and ensuring that the individual trusts them, and that they do what you say they're going to do. They have to be resourceful, and know the system to be able to navigate their way through it effectively for that young person."
For students with special needs, advisers liaise with the wider network of professionals which supports the student and their family, including Sencos, psychiatric nurses, and occupational therapists.
Jenny Rudge believes Connexions in Devon and Cornwall will survive proposed changes to the service. "We can get the results, and we do," she said. "We have stayed in contact with more young people in Cornwall and Devon than any other parts of the country last year. There's only about 1 per cent we are not in contact with - and out of 142,000 young people, that's some going."