In a generally depressing vista, the hopeful signs stand out. Even if the odds and the curriculum are stacked against effective careers education, Leeds is one local authority which has made strenuous efforts to give the subject some proper level of attention in its schools.
The city has issued a 50-page document. Nothing new in that, you may think. But all 46 of its secondary schools have signed up to the targets of good careers teaching that it sets out and - the real point - the schools are willing to be inspected on their ability to keep their promises. A move which gives this code of practice, The Leeds Standard for Careers Education and Guidance, a real chance of credibility with parents and employers.
If the initiative works, no pupil will leave school without experience of the world of work; without meeting the full range of people offering post-16 places in work or education; and every school will have drawn up a policy to ensure that careers is delivered across the range of subjects. This last point is regarded as crucial by the team devising the standard, not least because it ensures that the senior teachers controlling purse strings and timetables are properly involved. It is no coincidence that this is also one of the major recommendations of the recent Government document, Better Choices, aimed at improving careers advice.
If the element of assessment is central to the standard's potential success, so is the co-operation between the local education authority and the Leeds careers service.
Then there is the question of money. The costs of the research and staff training have been met by cash from the ubiquitous Technical and Vocational Education Initiative. On top of this, the schools will each receive a minimum of Pounds 2,000, plus additional cash according to the number of pupils; money provided by the Leeds Training and Enterprise Council, via the careers service, in the guise of the national "Years 9 and 10 Project". Much of this goes on information systems such as CD-Rom, staff development and careers libraries. Both grants spring originally from the Employment Department, and not the Department for Education.
All schools signed up for the first two of six "modules" set out in the standard: one listing targets for careers guidance, and the other covering whole-school policies.
Over time, the education and careers services hope that schools will take on the guidelines listed under: careers information provision; experience of the world of work; career action planning; and the operation of a specialist computer program devised to locate suitable paths forward.
"Careers has been a Cinderella subject on a national scale," says John Freeman, an adviser with the Leeds education department, one of the team who devised the standard. "We wanted to raise the profile of careers education; and to raise standards." Too many teachers, he says, have been made to see their careers job as an "add on" to other duties.
"If anything is squeezed it tends to be careers," agrees Ros Jones, of the Leeds careers service, which is waiting to hear whether the bid it has submitted, in tandem with the local TEC for its own soon-to-be privatised services, has been successful. Ros Jones believes that schools have seen benefits from the standard already, with a greater take-up of staff training, better use of resources, and of careers officers' time, as teachers start to make considered and specific requests of the careers service.
Chris Smith, head of careers guidance at Allerton Grange school, believes parents will regard it as an important element when selecting a school. "It's important that the standard is recognised by the authority, parents and pupils," she says.
A one-day dissemination conference on the Leeds standard will be held in the spring. Further information: 0532-477473