Right Connexions in Coventry
FIVE years ago when the career service was privatised, Steve Stewart believed that the overhaul was one of the toughest periods of his working life.
Now, it's all change again as the new Connexions youth support service comes into force next year in 16 areas of England.
Mr Stewart, now chief executive of Quality Careers Services in Coventry, admits: "In 1995 when we were privatised, I thought that was tough. But it was a doddle compared to this.
"Developing this service is the hardest piece of work I have ever had to do, but it's certainly the most rewarding and worthy."
Coventry and Warwickshire were chosen to pilot the new strategy, aimed at encouraging more young people to stay in education and training.
Theirs is one of 16 partnerships which will share in the pound;420 million for the service which is expected to be launched fully next April.
Exactly how this will work on the ground is not prescribed by the Government - local partnerships are expected to shape the service to their own local needs.
In Coventry the careers service and a host of partners, including further education colleges and schools, have spent the past six months trying out the new ideas. Later this month a new "one-stop-shop" offering advice and guidance to young people on various issues, from careers to health, opens in Coventry city centre.
And the first batch of 10 professionals will begin training to become personal advisers to the city's teenagers.
Mr Stewart puts great faith in Connexions. He believes it represents a culture change in the careers and youth service - one where young people will come first.
"To use the old business analogy, you have constantly to strive to be close to your customers.
"In the past the careers service has seen its primary customer as the Department for Education and Employment. The primary clients are now young people. The secondary ones are the people who pay us."
He believes that in Coventry one of the key elements is the involvement of young people in developing and ultimately delivering the service.
Two members of Coventry's youth council sit on the local Connexions management committee. They have even helped recruit the personal advisers (see above right).
Locally, the vision is that by 2005, teenage unemployment will be eradicated, and they all will be in education or training.
"Once we have got them in learning, how do we keep them?" asks Mr Stewart. "Nationally there are some awful statistics on retention rates.
"The key challenge for Connexions, working shoulder-to-shoulder with further education, is how we actually increase retention."
He estimates that in Coventry there are currently 213 young people who slip through the education and training net. But the new system i not just for the disaffected. Personal advisers will be available as a single point of contact for every youngster - whether they seek advice on university choices, or need help battling substance abuse.
Who are the personal advisers? They are coming from a range of backgrounds, says Mr Stewart. Some will be qualified careers advisers, others will have been teachers or youth workers, or from the voluntary sector.
Among their attributes, they have to be trustworthy, supportive, encouraging, and interested. A new training programme has been developed - a diploma for personal advisers, in which prior learning will also be accredited.
"We have been inundated with real, high-quality applicants," said Mr Stewart. "We were surprised because nationally we were getting this message that people were trying to walk away from the Connexions service."
He envisages a mix of paid full-time and part-time advisers, volunteers and young people acting as "peer tutors". He would also like to see these youngsters getting paid for their work in developing and delivering Connexions.
According to Connexions' national unit, FE colleges need to address the numbers of young people who drop out or fail. The unit says that by complementing existing student support, it will help overcome the obstacles students face in getting to the end of a course.
In the early days of the pilots there was concern among some colleges that they weren't sufficiently involved. Now says Anne Weinstock, head of the national unit, colleges are getting involved in most of the pilot areas.
Involvement ranges from college representatives on local strategic partnerships, to helping to assess young people's needs.
"Colleges will have to make their own decisions about who represents them. In one area there are 22 colleges. They need to get represented on the learning and skills council and build relationships themselves," said Ms Weinstock.
The Association of Colleges has been consulted on developing Connexions in FE, and is helping to create personal advisers' training.
Tile Hill College is one of the Connexions partners for Coventry - principal Paul Taylor sits on its management committee.
He said the college has tightened up on identifying students' needs, monitoring attendance and trying to reach young people before they drop out.
"I think the Connexions initiative is excellent," he said. "I think it's particularly good from this college's point of view, as we are concerned to address the needs of those who have hitherto been excluded from FE.
"We decided to mirror the Connexions approach within the college. So we have re-geared our internal careers service to adopt a more inclusive approach to guiding and advising youngsters.
"Effectively what we're looking for is a seamless connection between Connexions and the service within the college."