Kieran Gordon, president of the Institute of Career Guidance, tells Kate Hilpern why careers guidance professionals should feel optimistic about the future

Rarely has the pace of change in the field of careers guidance been so rapid, says Kieran Gordon, president of the Institute of Career Guidance (ICG). "Certainly in England, there is so much current uncertainty that it has inevitably led to many careers guidance professionals wondering if there is a future role for them, even in six months time," he says.

The other three countries across the UK are no strangers to change themselves. In Wales, 2001 saw a major re-branding of careers guidance, while the following year saw Scotland's careers service shift from 17 individual careers companies to one single organisation, Careers Scotland - which is now undergoing a further period of transition that could have a bearing on how the service is structured and governed. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's careers service has just put together a strategy for the way forward that went out to consultation this summer.

For the most part, careers guidance professionals in these three countries embraced the transformations and morale was significantly raised. So why the pessimism in England? "At the times of these changes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there were very clear statements being made about the role of the careers adviser," explains Gordon. "In England, at the moment, this is not the case because careers guidance is subsumed within a much larger policy dynamic. The upshot is that it's much more difficult for a careers adviser in England to clearly identify where Government policy is going and where their role will fit in."

He explains, "The Government is currently looking at the wider provision of quality careers information, advice and guidance for young people and adults in terms of public policy. The burning issue for us is what place and profile careers guidance professionals will have in developing policy and strategy. How central will they be to the wider offer of information, advice and guidance?"

Gordon also points to the Government's 14- to 19-year-old education and training agenda. "Again, careers guidance professionals are left wondering how central their impartial advice and guidance will be in terms of policy."

The same could be said of the emerging skills agenda, he adds. "The skills agenda has been around for some time, of course, but it has been stepped up since Leitch's review at the tail end of last year, since when there has been talk of the development of an adult careers service. With this, we are also left wondering about careers advisers' role. What kind of service would be provided? How universally would it be implemented? What kind of resources would become available for it? And how would this service cohere with careers advice services for young people?"

Despite such uncertainties, Gordon is confident that all will soon become clear. "As it does, I believe we will see levels of morale and motivation increase among careers guidance professionals," he says.

Many of the questions will be answered by central Government, Gordon says, which - after all - will soon have to produce implementation proposals on the back of the Leitch report. Local authorities and their partners will also find themselves having to answer some of the questions, he adds, particularly as the provision of careers guidance becomes increasingly localised.

This in itself is good news, believes Gordon. "I think the very fact that there is to be more planning of careers guidance at a local level is good news for the future of careers guidance because services will be able to address local needs rather than just responding to a national blueprint," he explains. "It will also provide an opportunity for careers guidance to really promote itself and the value of the services it provides."

He is also optimistic about future investment. "I think the current changes will provide an opportunity to increase investment into something that is actually called 'careers advice', which will in turn see careers guidance play a much more prominent feature in English public policy."

Prior to the current changes, the biggest watershed in terms of careers guidance in England took place back in 2001, with the introduction of the Connexions service. The Government's plan was for this new service to offer a unique support facility for the country's four million 13- to 19-year-olds on anything from career plans to drugs and sexual health. In organisational terms, then, Connexions broke down the barriers between the old Government careers service and its close partners in youth, health and social services - as well as some voluntary sector bodies - to provide a seamless facility; a single initial point of contact for young people facing the challenges of adulthood.

Many were cynical about it at the time, particularly as Connexions was - from the start - skewed more towards those not in education, employment or training - the so-called NEET group of young people - and therefore prevented universal access to career guidance. A further gripe of careers advisers was that as the term "careers adviser" was eradicated within Connexions - replaced by the broader title of "personal adviser" - the role of careers advisers would surely become devalued across England.

But while many careers advisers have remained unenthusiastic about Connexions, Gordon argues against both these points: "I think it is fair to say that there has been a perceived loss of identity by people who see themselves as careers professionals, and this is a shame. But I think the reality is that the role of careers adviser is as strong as it ever has been."

"In fact, we know that careers advisers are valued by the people who receive the service. Individuals have a right to access services and equally a right to refuse services if they don't feel they are relevant. And you only have to look at the number of people who do choose to access careers guidance to conclude that services are valued. There is plenty of testimony to that from how they respond in various surveys," he says.

Likewise, Gordon insists careers advisers are valued by other professionals such as teaching and social care staff. "We know that these people do recognise and respect the impartiality, independence, knowledge and skills that careers advisers bring to working with individuals. After all, these qualities are not necessarily part of the role of teaching and social care staff, but are certainly complementary to them. We also know that they value the very specialised role careers professionals have in helping individuals make choices to get through various transitions in their lives."

When it comes to careers guidance professionals being valued by policy makers, Gordon admits to a grey area. "I think perhaps because public policy is less well informed around the benefits and effectiveness of careers advisers, they don't respect us as much as they should. But with the changes about to happen in public policy, like the development of the 14-19 pathway for young people and the development of a careers service for adults, I really do think this will change."

As for Connexions' focus on NEETs, Gordon empathises with the view of pessimists, but ultimately disagrees. "Some say it has narrowed the scope of careers services to deal only with those young people who are least engaged, and this is true. Proportionately more resources go to those outside learning than those in it. But that said, what this focus has done is give a very clear and significantly high profile for the careers adviser as part of the Connexions delivery framework. After all, NEET is a high priority for central Government and also for local authorities and as such, careers advisers are increasingly getting involved in levels of strategy that they didn't previously. So the benefit of the focus on NEETs is that people have seen for themselves the value of good career planning, advice and support as being important to individuals making choices and sustaining those choices. The inevitable result of this is both a reduction in the level of NEETs - which is obviously a good thing - and the entry of careers guidance professionals into the spotlight as they are seen to help young people respond to some very difficult problems they face as they leave school."

Gordon believes the chief benefit of Connexions has been the fact that the service looks beyond the careers needs of individuals to deal with the "whole person". "Where that works, you get a much more meaningful response to an individual's needs. Without this kind of approach, you can't be sure that someone is able to take on careers advice. It's about overcoming barriers that might get in the way," he explains.

Another advantage of Connexions, he says, is that careers guidance professionals are increasingly encouraged to look at evidence-based practice to achieve the best outcomes for individuals. "Some people complain that it's all about targets, but I think greater measurement of impact of careers guidance professionals is a strength. In fact, I think it has given careers advisers a platform and some credibility that perhaps it lacked in the past."

He adds that Connexions involves its clients in the way that services are delivered far more than in the past, and what's more Connexions has enabled careers advisers to work alongside other professionals in a more meaningful way. "Careers advisers within Connexions are far more outward looking than in the past," he concludes.

"There are, of course, downsides to the Connexions system," he says. "Besides the unfortunate perceived loss of identity for careers professionals, which has largely come about as a result of the removal of their professional title, I think there is quite a lot of variability in the quality of services across England. I don't think this is unique to Connexions - in fact, it was the same for careers services in the past - but the fact remains that the kind of service you get still depends on what area of the country you're in. Some Connexions services are strong on careers and put a lot of time and effort into it, but this is not universal across England."

One solution to creating not only a more uniform service, but an ever improving service, would be to learn more from the other UK countries, believes Gordon. "Sharing of best practice across the four nations actually goes on very little," he admits. "I know from speaking to a senior government official in Scotland recently that it doesn't happen nearly enough."

Gordon believes the fact that there are no formal mechanisms in place at Government level is largely to blame. "In each country, policy is planned according to the nation's particular needs, and rightly so. But there is no machinery in terms of committees or cross governmental strategy groups that encourage us to look at what happens in other countries and whether we are learning as much as we could from each other."

ICG, he says, has consequently made it one of its missions this year to ensure greater international planning, information sharing and conferencing. "The services across the four nations are not that different. People would be surprised at how similar they are. But in terms of policy and practice, there is a great deal that could be shared that currently isn't."

He provides an example of how, in his day job of running the Merseyside Connexions service, he is currently using Scotland's approach to help plan for a forthcoming transition. "As part of our internal approach, we've started to look at how our service delivery operates and how it could operate better in the future. We have taken as a model to look at - although not necessarily to adopt or repeat - the service delivery framework used in Scotland. We think there is a lot that is useful for us to consider in redeveloping our own framework."

In particular, Gordon is impressed with the way Scotland sets three levels of service - a self-help level, an assisted level and a supported level. "Each takes account of the differing needs of the service user. We think it's a very simplistic - in a good way - and cost effective way of working."

Despite his optimism about careers services - including the forthcoming changes at Government and local level - Gordon says there is still much more the Government could be doing. "There is legislation on the statute books around the provision of careers education and guidance for young people in schools from age 11 upwards that is not rigorously enforced. I think the Government could look again at its obligation and duties to give more teeth to this," he says.

"I also think the Government could give more prominence to careers guidance to make it a mandatory aspect of inspection regimes, including Ofsted," he adds.

"Thirdly, I think the Government should take the opportunity to think about a much more coherent approach to a careers guidance strategy. They are now, as a result of Leitch, looking at setting up an adult careers service, but there is a very important need for young people moving from adolescence to adulthood and there is a danger that the proposed new system could become fragmented at this point and we could therefore lose a lot of people at this stage in their lives. I think this is therefore an ideal time for the Government to come up with an all-age careers guidance strategy - not necessarily an all-age service, but certainly an all-age strategy - to bring coherence to service delivery. If Gordon Brown were to ever give me a call, these are the things I would say."

Careers guidance across the whole of the UK has moved on massively in recent years, say Gordon - not least in terms of outreach work, online services and working more closely with employers. "Perhaps the biggest development of all is the way it works cross-professionally with other bodies and organisations. The result is that we get a much more complete picture of an individual and are able to fit careers advice in where it feels appropriate. For the end user, this has been a massive benefit and these changes are something careers professionals should feel very proud of achieving."