Upfront approach reaps dividends

Guidance on what to do after school or college is improving overall, but is patchy and haphazard in some cases, a new study by the Further Education Funding Council has revealed, reports Harvey McGavin

At Park Lane College in Leeds, the importance of careers advice "pervades the whole college", according to head of careers, Joan Hick.

A team of advisers, equivalent to seven full-time staff, each with specialist knowledge of an area of work, cater for the West Yorkshire college's 17, 000 enrolled students.

Last year they dealt with around 6,500 enquiries, ranging from pre-entry queries to assisting college- leavers with their UCAS forms.

The ethos of the service is "very upfront", said Joan Hick. The careers office, in the foyer of the college's main building, is open every day, apart from weekends and bank holidays, and opens late two evenings a week.

Staff also organise regular outreach work to the college's community bases. "We try to spread out our advice and make it as accessible as we can," she said.

The secret of the college's success, which has just been recognised with a gold award from Leeds Careers Guidance, lies in close liaison with tutors and outside agencies such as employers and universities.

"We see many students before they enrol. If a potential student walks through the door and doesn't know what to do, then we will help them. But we are impartial, not part of the marketing or recruitment, and if this college doesn't offer what they want we will refer them on."

The college's mixed intake, which includes many mature and special needs students, presents a variety of challenges to staff. "We are not simply used to dealing with 16-year-olds straight out of school," said Joan Hick.

Staff have recently helped two sisters, refugees from the former Yugoslavia who arrived in this country without their exam certificates, to secure university places.

Using modified computer software, a student with cerebral palsy was identified as having strong communication skills and has since found work showing visitors round the sculpture exhibits at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.

"We are not just lecturers who are doing this on the side," Joan Hick explained. "When students come to us they see people who are doing this sort of thing all the time. All the staff are on a continuous programme to develop their expertise and we replenish our knowledge by going out to visit universities and employers."

She stressed the importance of a supportive management in providing resources for the service and integrating careers into the main business of the college - an optional 16-week Open College-accredited course in careers guidance is available to students.

In the modern job market, where college-leavers may change career more than once and temporary contracts are becoming the norm, flexibility and presentation skills become more important than single-minded ambitions, she said.

"These days careers education is not simply about deciding what to do next. Young people aren't going to work in large organisations that have standard methods of advancement. We try to give them the skills to manage these changes and to present themselves positively in applications and at interview."

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