John Brennan: Why is the Connexions service not working?

The transition to adulthood is difficult for many young people, which is why the Government established the Connexions service to provide tailored advice to all 13- to 19-year-olds. Through a website and local advisers, it promises universal help for young people to find the right courses, plan for careers, use money wisely and deal with teenage relationship and family troubles. In theory, it was a good idea because traditional careers advice for all would be supplemented by extra support for those young people who were at risk of dropping out of education. But in practice it doesn't seem to be working.

The transition to adulthood is difficult for many young people, which is why the Government established the Connexions service to provide tailored advice to all 13- to 19-year-olds. Through a website and local advisers, it promises universal help for young people to find the right courses, plan for careers, use money wisely and deal with teenage relationship and family troubles. In theory, it was a good idea because traditional careers advice for all would be supplemented by extra support for those young people who were at risk of dropping out of education. But in practice it doesn't seem to be working.

An Association of Colleges survey has found that half of young people in colleges get no advice from Connexions, and most of those who do get help receive an hour or less each year. Worryingly, 41 per cent of respondents thought that access to Connexions for most students had fallen since 2002. What seems to have happened is that the needs of those most at risk are so great that they overwhelm the advisers dealing with them, so much so that their responsibility for wider careers advice and guidance is dissipating.

This should be no surprise. After all, the Department for Education and Skills makes clear in its annual report that, "Connexions' overarching objective is to reduce the proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training." That is where the bulk of the £472m budget is inevitably being spent.

Nobody, least of all colleges, underestimates the importance of that objective. Our staying-on rates are among the worst in the developed world. But the result is that colleges typically need to supplement the work of Connexions by £37,500 a year, with some spending £100,000 more on extra advice. And, more importantly, many young people simply don't get the advice they need when they are deciding on their futures. They don't have the time to discuss apprenticeships, college, work options or university courses.

At 16, this is a particular problem because of school and college funding. Since money follows the student, schools have a strong vested interest in retaining pupils in the sixth form, even when they might be better going to college or starting an apprenticeship.

Most heads and teachers strive to provide fair advice. But a bias inevitably creeps in. Moreover, too many 11-18 schools don't invite local colleges to tell their students about the alternatives available - something that reduces their post-GCSE choices.

All this should be the job of Connexions advisers. But most young people must turn to Connexions Direct, a website that offers them the chance to text or e-mail advisers, or have them call back. This is an undoubtedly valuable additional service, but it is no substitute for direct one-to-one meetings. It is not the "universal" service we were promised.

As John Tredwell, the Principal of Worcester Sixth Form College and a member of the Hereford and Worcester Connexions board, says: "Information presented online is not the same as a professional guidance adviser exploring the motives and ideas of a student. You might as well ask why students come to school when they can just stay at home and read books."

Good advice can save money, by reducing drop-out rates and ensuring that students start on the right courses in the first place. That's something that Gordon Brown and Charles Clarke should think about as they put the finishing touches to their plans for spending and education over the years ahead. After all, every young person needs the right Connexions.

The author is the chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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