The unkindest cut

18th March 2005 at 00:00
The dream of a one-stop guidance service for teenagers is in ruins. But why is Connexions being axed when it was hitting its targets? Ian Nash reports

It was a brilliant idea: combine 17 organisations responsible for youth education, welfare and careers advice to create a one-stop shop for everything from counselling to careers guidance.

The birth of Connexions in 2001 required careful handling. In fact midwife, chief executive Anne Weinstock, had to deliver robust twins: a universal advice service for all 13 to 19-year-olds and another targeted at young people at risk.

Delivery was fraught. Some members of this huge family questioned the parentage. Others, particularly careers advisers, complained that the new breed of personal adviser, responsible for tracking individual youths, usurped or ignored their work.

Then, last month, Margaret Hodge, the children's minister, made a sensational announcement: Connexions had helped achieve a 14 per cent cut in the number of young people not in employment, education or training (known as the NEET group). It was the biggest inroad into this problem for a decade, exceeding the 10 per cent target the Treasury had set the new service.

There was considerable evidence that young people were getting much-needed "impartial" advice from the 300 Connexions one-stop shops across England advising on everything from drug abuse to choosing a university.

Some local services made huge strides. Independent research showed that 86 per cent of young people found advice and jobs through the Merseyside service, almost double the rate of the old careers service. In Liverpool, the number of young people in care who moved into employment, education or training doubled in four years from 30 to 59 per cent. Similarly, in Nottingham, Connexions helped cut numbers not in employment, education and training by 32 per cent in two years.

A vast national database was set up tracking the progress of 1.6 million 16 to 18-year-olds (93 per cent of the cohort) in England - a fact that particularly impressed Gordon Brown and the Treasury.

Carolyn Caldwell, executive director of the National Association of Connexions Partnerships, said: "Connexions has done what the Government intended. Careers advice ... alone is not enough for many young people. The additional personalised support has given them the opportunity to grow in confidence."

But some people were not happy, notably headteachers and former careers advisers. They put pressure on ministers to rethink. Meanwhile Tony Blair and his chief adviser Andrew Adonis were also ruing the fact that pound;450 million a year was now being spent away from schools and colleges.

Critics pounced on inspection reports that said Connexions careers guidance was "patchy". The service was also under fire for concentrating on vulnerable teenagers to meet targets, and neglecting the rest. Ministers began muttering. A National Audit Office report said the service had only half the number of personal advisers it needed.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the balance of opinion backed a break-up of the service: "There is a part of the work they (Connexions) have done quite well and that is where there has been pressure on them to perform. But in the main I think schools and colleges will deliver better."

Ministerial leaks pre-empted reports of successes, particularly with vulnerable teens. Connexions, it was said, had failed in the key task of delivering a universal service, and had to be reformed.

The pressure for change was unstoppable: Ms Hodge backed the ideas taking shape for the coming youth green paper: 60 per cent of Connexions cash would go to new Children's Trusts, created under the 2004 Children Act, and 40 per cent directly to schools.

Anne Weinstock was said to be apoplectic. While she had no objection to Connexions being brought within the new trusts, she told colleagues that breaking up the service would seriously damage its integrity and effectiveness.

The Connexions network went into overdrive, firing off letters to the media and rallying interest groups to its defence. At a recent conference in Manchester, young people who use the service were ferocious in its defence, stunning MPs Jeff Rooker and Phil Hope. The message was: "Hands off."

Keiran Gordon, head of Connexions Merseyside, said: "The 19 one-stop-shops in Merseyside would have to close if 40 per cent was taken from our budget.

It is a mistake to see the universal and targeted services as distinct. All young people go through the same door for advice - without stigma or shame."

Jean Pardoe, chief executive of Connexions Nottingham, was unapologetic about putting the needs of children at risk before the universal service - it was after all what ministers had wanted. "That is why the only target set by the Treasury was to hit that 10 per cent target (for the NEET group)," she said. In the medium term this helps the universal service, she insisted: "Now we are able to divert the cash we no longer need for NEETs into the universal service. It amazes me that anyone would want to break up such a system. There is no logic in it."

So where, after such a good start, did it all go wrong? There are four factors behind the perception that Connexions has failed.

First, it lacked adequate funds, as the National Audit Office pointed out last November. While pound;450m a year may sound a lot, the service needed nearer pound;600m - hence the shortage of advisers.

Second, the Government's target distorted things. While ministers set a tough target for cutting NEETs, they set no specific goals for the universal service. So young people at risk became the prime focus of Connexions.

Third, the big idea, combining all relevant organisations, never really happened. David Forrester, former director of FE and youth training at the DfES, said: "The Government never pursued vigorously enough its vision in Bridging the Gap (the 1997 report that spawned Connexions)."

Fourth, Connexions lacked the right political allies. Support from the top could well have saved it. A senior source in the Department for Education and Skills told The TES. "You could see it coming. This is partly a spat between Number 10 and the Treasury. Look at Sure Start - its performance was abysmal compared with Connexions, everyone knows it. Yet it has five years of ring-fenced cash. Why? Because Tony Blair said so."

So, the green paper next week looks set to propose a carve-up of the service with the bulk of the cash going to Children's Trusts for an integrated youth advice service (with a strong steer towards the NEET group). The rest will go to schools and colleges for their careers work.

It is also expected to outline plans for a new type of "generic worker" with multiple skills, who will integrate the youth service, welfare workers and Connexions personal advisers. Ms Hodge has said she wants to get away from "professional silos".

The vexed question of funding will not be addressed. Ms Hodge told Unison, the union representing 15,000 Connexions staff, there would be no new money, so resources would have to be "recycled" through efficiency gains.

However, pound;60m has already been earmarked by the DfES for reorganisation and redundancies - though the true cost is expected to be nearer pound;80m. Rising costs of the service will drive this to nearer pound;150m. Local authorities will be expected to foot some of the bill.

Unison predicts big job losses and instability.

Big questions remain: Will the cash schools and colleges get for careers advice be ring-fenced? What will be done to guarantee young people impartial advice from schools? Some suggest schools have an incentive to recommend that teenagers stay on with them when this may not be their best interests.

However, the biggest question for Ms Hodge is about the Connexions partnerships - if they no longer serve all young people will they be seen as a service for failures? "If you split the service, how will you stop young people who are at risk feeling stigmatised when they approach us? Get this wrong and they will stop coming," said Mr Gordon.

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