Help! I need somebody

When the fateful day arrives and the results are devastating, counsellors can point the way.

Careers counselling has changed greatly from the time when the most that schools could offer was a Kleenex and sympathy if a student's grades weren't up to scratch. Gone are the days when results were posted up in a window and students left to sob on their own if they'd missed their university place. Now on the day of results, most schools are open all day with a bank of teachers on hand with advice. There are also careers centres in every area, run either by the local training and enterprise council or a contracted-out private company. All students have a statutory right to free careers advice. Yet more and more students are turning to private counselling, to get more detailed guidance on courses.

Wendy Fidler is the marketing director of Gabbitas Educational Consultants, which runs one of the largest A-level counselling services from its London office. Last year the firm saw hundreds of students, and this year demand is expected to be even greater. "In a way it's more difficult for students now because the range of choices has mushroomed over the past five years," she says. "What we can offer is an independent view. Often students don't want to talk to someone who knows them very well, like their teachers and parents, because they feel they've let them down. We can review the options calmly and objectively."

Most students opt for a one-hour session, which costs around pounds 120. The firm also offers a half-day consultancy, which begins with a 40-minute discussion about which courses the student is interested in. Then they complete a computerised analysis of aptitudes and skills, which comes up with a list of 12 possible occupations, which the counsellor could use to look at suitable courses. Finally there is a further hour's consultation, and the student is sent a full report. Total cost: around pounds 235.

"We also offer consultations by telephone," says Wendy. "This costs around pounds 40 for the first 15 minutes, and pro rata after that."

The firm has a database of all university courses, as well as information about vocational qualifications, HNDs and private colleges. Counsellors visit universities and colleges regularly, and have built up links with admissions tutors. Sometimes they will make contact with a university for the student.

Private counsellors have their critics. Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, says he doesn't see why parents have to spend the money. "Most students will get all the advice they need from their school or the local careers office. Careers advice now is outstanding, and the information about the courses is free.

"Students have to be much more flexible about which course to go for if they haven't got the grades they wanted. It's no good aiming for straight English if you haven't got As or Bs. Think about putting together an English course with American literature, for example. Last year 16 per cent of the students who didn't get their grades found places through clearing."

Finding a reputable consultant can be a problem. Firms such as Gabbitas are well established, but there is nothing to stop anyone setting themselves up as a careers adviser. There is no regulatory body for careers advice, and local newspapers and yellow pages are full of adverts.

Rebecca Tee, president of the Institute of Careers Guidance, based in the West Midlands, says: "It is confusing for parents and students. We aim to set up a national register of career consultants who are qualified and endorsed by the Institute's code of practice. Parents would ring us, and we could supply a list of names in their area, with details of fees."

Wendy Fidler believes that students turn to firms like hers because they want more time with a counsellor - and local careers offices are often overwhelmed after students receive their results, and cannot spend an hour with each student"n

`Private consultants raised our daughter's morale'

Holly Potter, 19, was devastated when she didn't get the grades she wanted to study philosophy at university. She got a C in philosophy, and failed to get her economics and general studies.

"It was a very difficult time," says her mother, Carole Potter, who lives in Cheshire. "All her friends were talking about going off to university, and Holly was told by her school that there was no way she'd get a university place with just one A-level. We actually went to Leeds University to plead her case, but they were adamant that she couldn't get in. It was demoralising, especially as she'd worked so hard."

A friend had heard about Gabbitas, and suggested they get in contact. Mrs Potter says, "They clarified the whole situation for us. I went to London with Holly about 10 days after the results. First, the counsellor took careful details of her GCSE results, and talked about the universities she'd applied for. Then he asked about her interests and hobbies. They suggested that she would be more suited to a vocational course at this stage, emphasising that she could swop on to a degree course later."

Holly is now taking an HND in leisure and tourism at Bradford Business College, with a view to moving on to a degree course. This year she has achieved merits and distinctions in all her modular options.

"We found using private consultants helpful, because they reinforced for Holly what we'd been suggesting - it was an independent person, who obviously knew what he was talking about," says Mrs Potter.

"It cost around pounds 100. It was money well spent, in that it gave Holly direction and it raised her morale almost immediately"

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