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Ian Barratt, the newly-appointed chief executive of the Institute of Career Guidance (ICG), discusses how the differing pattern of careers guidance provision in the UK is creating a postcode lottery that is not helping individuals or the wider economy, in the first of a monthly column.

Careers guidance provision in the UK is already a patchwork quilt and the danger is that the situation is getting worse. Recent cuts in English local authority budgets have had a massive impact on the Connexions service which has, up to now, been providing careers information advice and guidance to school pupils, college students, NEETs (young people not in education employment or training) and those with special needs. The outcome is a postcode lottery with some areas offering no careers services at all, others a depleted service focusing only on vulnerable young people and a few attempting to provide continuity of service.

The trigger for this has been the Education Bill, currently going through Parliament, which places a legal duty on schools to provide career information advice and guidance (IAG) that is impartial and independent. This means that teachers cannot, in theory, provide IAG as they are deemed to be "partial", but will given the option to buy in careers services. Those colleges that have witnessed schools tearing up their prospectuses, banning them from participating in careers fairs and rubbishing the quality of their teaching – all aimed at cajoling pupils to stay on into the sixth form – will clap their hands with glee. But there is a catch. Schools will receive no extra budget as the £200 million spent on the Connexions service has effectively disappeared – possibly earmarked for other things. Anecdotal evidence from members of the Institute of Career Guidance indicates that few schools will be able to afford to buy in careers IAG. Those that can may go for the cheapest option, regardless of quality, unless they have healthy finances.

To satisfy requirements of the legislation for independence and impartiality, the government is setting up a website with an online telephone advice service as part of its much-heralded National Careers Service for England. So any school that wants to ensure they are following the rules has merely to refer pupils to the website. Job done. That saves £200 million without too much fuss. It also chimes with the government's decentralisation approach to schools by leaving it up to them to decide what is best for their pupils.

Worries that young people aged 16-19 will be left with no access to face-to-face guidance services have been raised by politicians. There are moves in the House of Lords to try and extend the legal duty to provide career IAG up to the age of 18, but none of this is set in stone. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a different structure and are not affected in the same way, demonstrating that a careers service funded centrally is feasible.

In Scotland, careers guidance remains a Government service in the form of Skills Development Scotland, aimed at individuals of all ages. It is also moving towards an online model and a recent review of post-16 education and vocational training by Willy Roe (former Chairman of Skills Development Scotland) emphasised the fact that the public sector no longer has a monopoly on the supply of career IAG and that a new generation of online services has now reached the market. Careers services in Wales are undergoing their own upheaval. While the aim is an all-age service, there are currently six companies in Wales working in partnership. They are moving towards becoming a single organisation with a corresponding loss of people and expertise. Finally, in Northern Ireland, the Government service is facing its own budgetary issues.

The Institute of Careers Guidance continues to believe in a unified profession, with a single set of competences and ethics to underpin service delivery in all these contexts. But it seems to us inevitable that upheaval, budgetary pressures and varying arrangements can only distort service at the local level. Our definition is that "Career guidance refers to services and activities intended to assist individuals of any age and at any point throughout their lives, to make educational, training and occupational choices and to manage their careers".

Whether going into further or higher education, entering the job market for the first time or seeking a career change, it is demoralising and wasteful for individuals to be applying for or undertaking the wrong course or role. In our view, this means that individuals deserve – and the wider economy needs – sound career advice so that the right skills can be harnessed in the right roles. The Recruitment and Employment Federation summed it up this way: "Our jobs market is open, dynamic and flexible; this provides our economy with an international advantage. We must nurture this by building a highly skilled workforce and by harnessing the contribution of recruitment professionals in providing guidance for job-seekers".

We also remain concerned that, while a new generation entering the job market is IT and web literate, technology is not the only answer. From experience we know that young people like to receive information in lots of different ways. Some people like to use the internet, email and computer programmes, while others like to talk to careers advisers on the phone and sometimes use text. However, when we talk to young people their preferred method of communication seems to be face to face discussion – talking through ideas and finding out through discussion with a careers adviser what is the best next step.
The Institute of Career Guidance will be monitoring the pattern of delivery across the UK and continuing to provide evidence to all Governments around the need for a quality careers service for all.

Ian Barratt is chief executive of the Institute of Career Guidance (ICG)

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