Are we failing our teenagers?

The Government's ambitious new service to give careers advice to young people is being criticised for neglecting those who want to go to university. Is this fair, asks Caroline Haydon
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The Independent Online

The Government is being accused of failing to offer mainstream pupils independent education and careers advice because it is redirecting resources towards children who are dropping out. Education professionals are now angry that a government service, which still claims to be universal, is in fact specialising - without publicly saying so.

Connexions, the Government's two-year-old, ambitious education and advice service for 13-to 19-year-olds, has been widely praised for its cross-department attempt to bring "joined up thinking" to career services. It targets youth clubs and high-street drop-in centres, as well as schools and colleges, and has a helpline and a text messaging service.

It aims to bring together the support teenagers need, not only in choosing courses and careers, but in navigating a choice of voluntary activities, or seeking advice on drug abuse, sexual health or homelessness. It also promises access to a personal adviser for every young person.

Now some in charge of the education of this age group say that for many, the option of personal advice is being jeopardised or lost. Strict government targets on reducing the numbers of those not in education, employment or training (the so-called NEET group) mean that advisers are being diverted to work with this group and are therefore not available to work with pupils who want to go on to higher education - there are simply not enough to go round.

The service has just not been given enough money, they say, to take on this huge new area of work. Sixth-form and further education colleges are losing advisers, and employing their own in-house staff to compensate - although resources, and in some case expertise, may be scarce.

This is at a time when 13- to 19-year-olds are more in need of advice than ever, says John Tredwell, the principal of Worcester Sixth Form College.

Both the complexity of choices now available and the Government's stated aim of wider participation mean there are larger numbers of young people seeking independent, impartial advice on their future.

"The main reason for students dropping out of higher education is inappropriate career choice," he says. "And now that students are faced with AS exam modules to do in January and June there is even less time for them to research what they want to do next. We are all wholly in support of provision for disadvantaged kids, but as professionals we know that children with problems soak up hours of advice time. It is not right if that robs others of professional, independent advice.

"It is fine if there is additional provision, but it should not be happening at the expense of mainstream pupils. There is evidence now that students are deferring choices because they are finding it difficult to decide what to do."

David Igoe, the vice-chairman of the Sixth Form Colleges Employers Forum, agrees. He has seen the service to colleges and schools dwindling, over the past two years, "to the point where it is minimal".

His own sixth-form college, Cadbury in Birmingham, with 1,300 full-time 16-to 18-year-olds, has seen its level of support from Connexions fall to less than a day a week.

"We've developed our own in-house provision to compensate, and we can give reasonably good independent advice, which kids need, about universities because we have no axe to grind over which one they choose. But some colleges are finding this difficult. When you have become used to a particular level of service and they pull the plug, it's another cost, and you may not have the expertise to cope.

"This is another aspect - rather like the health service - of target-setting getting in the way of common sense. Although we are all concerned about the kids who drop out, to make them the focus distorts the primary function of an independent agency to give impartial and sensible advice to all about the minefield of educational provision. This is an example of unintended consequences - no one has thought this through."

The effects of the Government's targets can clearly be seen in Herefordshire and Worcestershire where John Tredwell is a member of the local Connexions board as well as head of the sixth-form college. There the shift in the allocation of personal advisers next year will be dramatic. To achieve the now nationally required 10 per cent reduction in the numbers of children who have opted out of education and training, many advisers will be re-deployed.

"As this is resource-intensive work the reallocation of personal advisers is substantial," says Tredwell. "The Connexions service has insufficient funds to provide personal advisers for all its needs."

Overall, the number of advisers in 43 schools and 10 colleges in the county has been cut from 48 to 14.5. However, targeted preventative work in schools and colleges will get a small boost - another 8.5 advisers, and the NEET group will get a much bigger one - another 28 advisers.

The figures look good, because there is an overall rise. "But I am now faced with the prospect of employing another careers adviser just to stand still," says Tredwell. He warns that because the service has been rolled out in stages, areas not experiencing a problem now may well do so in future.

Yet it is important that students have impartial advice from the ages of 13 upwards, says Judith Norrington, the director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges. "We think students deserve to have appropriate advice and guidance. We are asking them to make potentially life-changing decisions at 14 - about school, college and the workplace. That needs proper, independent advice. And it's clear that colleges with a high number of 16-to 19-year-olds going on to university are having difficulty getting that advice."

In the wider further education sector there is also a concern about schools employing their own career advisers. The suspicion voiced is that schools may cherry-pick the best pupils for their own sixth forms and send the rest elsewhere - the sort of bias that Connexions was set up to counter.

A DfES spokesperson said the service "does not turn people away on any basis" and its universal accessibility is reflected by the fact that any young person can call the hotline, or text or webchat directly to a trained adviser.

"Following consultation with young people themselves, Connexions Herrefordshire and Worcestershire has determined the best way to meet the needs of young people in there area is to reprioritise the deployment of Personal Advisers.

However, this will not result in any detriment to the service and colleges should not need to employ a careers adviser of their own."

Connexions says that it is also increasing the budget for information in schools and colleges and will up the amount of training and support for school and college career co-ordinators.