BETTER ADULT guidance will be an important factor in delivering the Government's lifelong learning agenda, but the systems in place for providing advice vary considerably across the UK.
While England has effectively privatised its careers service, Wales and Scotland have avoided widespread involvement by private firms. Northern Ireland still has a centrally-run service.
For adults, Wales is setting the pace by proposing an all-age information, advice and guidance service. To overcome the confusing labyrinth of organisations that offer guidance-related services, it would be given the clear and brief title Careers Wales.
Careers professionals in other parts of the UK are aware of the need to improve adult guidance while initiatives such as individual learning accounts and the University for Industry, get underway. Scotland has already established adult guidance networks that are separate from, but linked to, its careers companies.
In England, the recent post-16 White Paper Learning To Succeed made a clear distinction between guidance for different age groups. While the future needs of young people are to be met by Connexions - a new strategy involving the youth and careers service - adult learners will come under a network of information, advice and guidance partnerships.
Bryony Pawinska, chief executive of the Institute of Careers Guidance, says the English careers service should look seriously at what is being proposed in Wales. "The seamless approach is one that is supported by everybody involved," she says.
While many people accept that privatisation has given the English careers service a long overdue shake-up, it has created stark inequalities. The quality of guidance available to adults is particularly uneven. In some areas it is provided by careers companies with money they receive from training and enterprise councils while, in others, it still comes under the remit of local authorities.
Jim Woollcombe, chair of the Careers Services National Association, says all careers companies are interested in advising adults - so long as they have the money. In the absence of a specific adult guidance budget, local authorities and careers companies either have to charge users or fund it out of a general budget. "Clearly that is not going to produce a coherent guidance system," he says.
England is covered by 66 careers services - one third of which involve profit-making firms such as Nord Anglia and Vosper Thorneycroft. Most contracts were awarded in 1995 following open competitive tendering. Companies whose contracts are due to expire next April have been granted an extension of 12 months, but the Government has still to decide whether to force another round of tendering or switch to a system of licensing.
Wales is almost certain to abandon competitive tendering in favour of rolling one-year contracts while Scotland, which awarded contracts on a different basis in the first place, has announced existing companies can continue operating if performance meets quality standards.
Another round of competitive tendering would be extremely disruptive and expensive for English careers companies, says Mr Woollcombe. "It would be most unlikely to produce any new participants. It would simply lead to a reshuffling of the same companies at considerable cost."
England is the only part of the UK to have much private-sector involvement in its careers service. Mr Woollcombe admits there are "cases of tension" between companies and those run by partnerships of local authorities and TECS, but stresses that others get on well together.