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Through the looking-glass

An international comparison of career guidance revealsways in which it can be improved.

The importance of effective careers advice often goes unrecognised in many countries, despite high levels of youth unemployment. Guidance teachers rarely have specialist training and feel undervalued, and in most schools educational and career counselling is a low priority.

But Mapping the Future, a study by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, concludes that career guidance could be much more effective. If it were better focused, it could play a key role in the uncertain labour markets of the future - as well as enabling young people to lead satisfying lives.

The OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation studied Austria, Canada, Finland, Italy, Japan, Mexico and Scotland. The aim was to examine the role career guidance plays in education and employment, and identify innovative examples of good practice.

The relationship between education and employment is changing rapidly. In the past, most transitions between education and work happened more or less automatically, but now these traditional systems are beginning to fragment. For many young people, finding an appropriate career path is difficult.

In the future, most people will need to negotiate a maze of education and training options. Periods of conventional employment may alternate with training, freelance work or self-employment and, perhaps, spells of unemployment. As lifelong learning becomes not just desirable but essential, career guidance will become equally crucial.

The public seem to have recognised its importance in advance of the policymakers. An attitude survey carried out for the OECD showed that more than 80 per cent of the population in 12 countries thought that careers advice and guidance was an "essential" or "very important" role of the school.

Most enthusiastic were the Austrians, who thought it was the most important function of a school; 93 per cent rated career guidance as "essential" or "very important".

In virtually all the countries studied, responsibility is divided - sometimes rather messily - between the ministry of education and the ministry of labour or employment (and occasionally others). This often results in gaps and inconsistencies.

Each kind of institution has its characteristic strengths and weaknesses when offering guidance.

Educational institutions: The overwhelming strength of guidance in schools and colleges is that teachers and school counsellors know and understand the young people they are advising, and have a thorough knowledge of the educational options.

The most important weakness is that teachers do not always take their career guidance role very seriously, and sometimes have low expectations and fixed ideas concerning some pupils' abilities or attitudes. They are often unfamiliar with the needs of local employers, and cannot normally advise young people who have left school or college.

Labour-market organisations: The key strengths of locating guidance workers in JobCentres or various forms of "advice shop", are that guidance is available to a much wider range of young people, and the advisers are in close contact with the labour market. But information about education and training options is often limited. Advisers may over-emphasise job placement and the interests of employers, and not pay enough attention to an individual's needs, aptitudes and further development.

Most countries also have several different agencies - public, private and voluntary - which offer careers advice. A key example of a successful agency is the Scottish Careers Service (newly privatised) which is unique among the seven countries in the study. It forms a crucial link between the schools and the employment services.

The main advantage of such independent organisations is that they can liaise between educational institutions and employers, and are well-placed to offer unbiased advice and a wide range of information. Schools and colleges, trying to maximise their numbers, do not always alert their students to other possibilities; and employment-based advisers may be influenced by employers seeking cheap labour without offering training.

As guidance takes place in so many different settings, there are , of course, difficulties - ranging from the uncertain professional identity of workers in the field to problems of overlap and incoherence. But it would probably be a mistake to rationalise it all too thoroughly, since guidance is needed by a wide range of young people who require numerous access points. Indeed, most administrations ought to diversify even further the locations from which guidance can be obtained, to reach young people excluded from professional advice.

In most countries the guidance system needs to be rethought so that it can respond more rapidly and flexibly. The traditional all-encompassing systems of some countries have become rigid and bureaucratic; in more ad hoc systems, there are large gaps in provision.

The challenge is to construct a service which is both coherent and flexible - so that everyone is offered basic information and the chance to develop the decision-making skills, while those who need something more intensive can be targeted rapidly and effectively.

Most countries would benefit from addressing key issues: * Incoherent or incomplete systems tend to be the norm. Governments should audit their own systems, recording what is already in place and identifying gaps in provision. Improvements may involve more trained guidance workers.

* There is a general dearth of good teaching material for guidance teachers and other career advisers. This lack is particularly damaging when many workers in the field have no specialist training. Governments could have a very positive effect for relatively little financial outlay by sponsoring high-quality training packages, guidance materials and computer software .

* An effective system should offer career guidance to everyone as an integral element of their lifelong education, rather than restricting it to transition points or to individuals with problems. Encouraging self-reliance and autonomous decision-making early in an individual's development can make for cost-effectiveness later on, since more people can take responsibility for their own choices, freeing trained guidance workers to focus on the most difficult cases.

* Access to information and to guidance is a problem in most countries, especially for those no longer in education or training. Innovative methods of delivering information, especially computer-based technologies, should be developed. New ways of offering guidance - perhaps "advice shops" in libraries and shopping centres, or careers hotlines - should be explored. Outreach techniques using youth workers or peer counsellors, or unusual approaches such as briefing parents should be more widely used.

Mapping the Future: Young People and Career Guidance is available from HMSO bookshops, or OECD Publications, 2 rue Andre-Pascal, 75775 Paris Cedex 16, France. The report is the third in a series entitled What Works in Innovation. The next, due next year, will focus on co-operation between the school and the family in nine countries including England, Wales, and Ireland.

DIFFERENT COUNTRIES DEFINE CAREER GUIDANCE DIFFERENTLY, BUT IT USUALLY INCLUDES THREE OVERLAPPING ELEMENTS: * Educational guidance: This focuses on a young person's academic progress, and such elements as the acquisition of good study habits; tackling learning difficulties; choosing certain subjects, programmes or pathways; or making decisions as to what type of school to attend.

* Career guidance: Includes understanding the world of work; choosing an occupation; and smoothing the transition from school to employment.Some countries - such as Austria, Scotland, Finland and some Canadian provinces - have systematically built career guidance into the curriculum; but in other countries it is more haphazard, and may depend on the particular school district, school, or individual teachers. How much it features in the curriculum may also depend on the commitment of the head, or availability of teaching materials.

* Personal and social guidance: Such programmes encourage students to understand themselves as they change and develop, and may involve advice on how to deal with issues such as financial difficulties or family problems.

WAYS TO EASE THE TRANSITION TO WORK: Work experience is now common practice in countries such as the United Kingdom and Finland as part of all secondary students' general education and introduction to adult life.

But in some countries - such as Japan - it is still very rare. In Canada and Austria, it plays a part in the vocational preparation of young people who are not destined for higher education. But in Italy, unusually, it tends to be for high-fliers. This is the result of collaboration between high schools and local industrialists, who can thereby pick the cream of the graduating students.

Other ways of bridging the gap between school or college and the workplace include: work shadowing (in which students follow workers on a one-to-one basis throughout the day); mentoring (found mostly in Canada and the UK, in which successful members of ethnic minorities offer themselves as role models to young people in danger of underachieving); and simulations (which involve role-playing and practice of various kinds, usually carried out on school premises but in realistic workplace surroundings).

All these innovative approaches share an important element - breaking down the barriers between the school and the outside world, so that students can make better choices on the basis of personal experience.

Some of the most interesting examples of innovations in different countries have evolved to meet a particular need: * In Scotland, the Partnership Programme has invested money in seriously deprived areas, including Ferguslie Park, Paisley. There, the homeschoolemployment partnership focuses on three secondary schools and their feeder primaries, bringing together families, schools and employers. The work with families begins when children are three, and includes an intensive programme of home visiting, aimed at supporting the children and young people through key changes in their lives, including the transition to work.

* In Austria, schools are sometimes weak on offering up-to-date career-related information. But they frequently supplement their own resources by using the Career Information Centres, which are designed to be attractive to young people. They offer a wide range of computerised databases, videos, telephone services, and the opportunity to take aptitude tests. The emphasis is on self-help, but these centres also offer advice or can refer young people (and their parents) for even more specialised guidance.

* Canada is particularly strong on educational and career guidance materials and teaching programmes - and on training packages for guidance workers. Computer-assisted career guidance is also a big growth area - even on CD-Rom and on the Internet. Another successful Canadian innovation involves training young people in schools and colleges to counsel their peers.

* In Japan, the job market is very different. Young people are guided not towards specific occupations, but towards particular companies. Once they have joined a company, they will be trained for a job within it. Naturally, this makes career guidance look rather different; teachers tend to direct students towards those secondary schools fulfilling the entry requirements for certain universities - which in turn give access to certain companies. However, there is a small but growing demand for guidance which emphasises autonomy and choice. For example, students entering one of the few high schools in Tokyo offering a choice of curriculum must attend a two-day pre-entry session to help them plan their studies, followed by a 10-day "orientation course" with a substantial element of career guidance.

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