The government’s Connexions scheme has its sights set on young
people who are not involved in education, training or work and it
promises a lot. Ruth Winchester reports on the implications for
social care and why not everybody has welcomed its arrival while
Jacqui Newvell explains what it will mean for the professionals and
It is one of life’s little ironies that the decisions you make
without a second thought are often those with the most profound
repercussions. This maxim is never more true than for teenagers as
they approach the end of compulsory schooling.
Research by the Social Exclusion Unit in 1999 found that there
were an estimated 400,000 young people who were not involved in
education, training or work. Connexions is the government’s answer
to the perception that these young people are likely to be those
who lead feckless, benefit-dependent lives, suffer intense social
exclusion, and get involved in drugs and petty crime, or worse.
This national strategy, which began with a select few pilots
last April, is to be rolled out nationally over the next three
years. The basic premise is that every child aged 13-19 will be
allocated a personal adviser, who will act as a mentor, adviser and
role model, sort out basic problems, and act as an interface
between their mentee and other services. A helpful analogy made by
Connexions experts is that of a GP, dealing with minor issues, yet
with almost limitless power to refer their charge to specialist
services for more intractable problems.
Connexions is clearly going to have a significant impact on the
experience of its target audience. The majority of young people
will probably see their adviser simply for an annual careers
review, but for the troublesome minority, contact could be a weekly
or even daily occurrence. But there are indications that it will
also impact on an enormous number of professionals, including
health and social care staff, youth workers and education welfare
staff. It is alarming just how unaware many of these professionals
are of the enormous steamroller bearing down upon them. Ask the
average social worker about Connexions and you’ll probably be
rewarded with a blank stare.
To some extent this lack of grip on the process is
understandable. Connexions is an enormous, complex and slow moving
affair for which no one has yet come up with a concise description.
It is also predominantly education and careers-led, and has been
extremely badly publicised by its lead agency, the Department for
Education and Employment.
Despite the lack of awareness, there has been widespread support
among those in the know for the somewhat jaded concept of
“joined-up thinking” that lies behind Connexions. Key points are
that it is being run in a very hands-off way, with local
partnerships shouldering almost complete responsibility for
deciding which services should be offered, how much staff should be
paid, what key groups to target and so on.
Very broad-brush business plans have to be rubber stamped by the
DfEE, but there is enormous variation across the pilots and this
seems likely to continue as the national programme develops. It
seems money is not in short supply either, with initial pilots
receiving something between £500,000 and £1 million for
their first year. For those pilots stepping up a gear, bundles of
“development” money are also on offer.
But there are also some concerns about the development of
Connexions, particularly about its founding principles. Initially,
the service was intended to focus on the most vulnerable groups of
young people – those who were already excluded from school or those
whose path after 16 was unclear. Since then the programme has been
made universal, which inevitably means less emphasis on those most
Questions have also been raised about the ethos driving the
strategy. Social care staff and youth work professionals are
arguably more interested in a young person’s health, safety and
family circumstances than they are in how many GCSEs they pass or
whether they go into further education. Yet the DfEE’s influence
and the central position held by the careers service has resulted
in a powerful focus on academic attainment and, ultimately,
employability, rather than on helping young people to develop and
achieve their potential in the broadest sense.
Anne Weinstock, chief executive of the Connexions Service
National Unit, insists that Connexions is about far more than
formal learning.2 “Careers guidance is only one form of
support that young people need,” she argues. “In order to produce
the mature, active citizens of tomorrow we need to encourage
teenagers to take part in activities that will improve their basic
skills, nurture talents that might not get free rein in schools,
and build confidence and esteem.”
But the targets set by the DfEE suggest otherwise. Primary
targets – which set the early focus for the pilots over the next
couple of years – include reductions in truancy and increases in
the number of 16-17-year-olds in education and training. They also
specify increases in the number and grade of qualifications that
should be achieved. Personal and social advances are notoriously
difficult to quantify, but there is a narrow emphasis here that
makes some observers uncomfortable.
Another aspect of the scheme that has raised alarm bells is the
new Connexions Card, which will be issued to every child between
the age of 13 and 19 from August. This seemingly innocuous card
will entitle young people to discounts on things like travel,
cinema tickets and trainers. But it will also have a “smart”
facility which can be used to monitor attendance on courses, pay
for education-related expenses such as school meals, and earn
“points” for completion of training, education or voluntary
Derek Moore is head of social work for the Children’s Society in
the South West, and has been seconded to work with the Government
Office South West on the development of the Connexions programme.
He is concerned that the Connexions card is essentially an ID card
for young people, being introduced by the back door and with an
as-yet unidentified number of functions.
“The card itself could be quite invidious,” he argues. “When
Jack Straw announced this he suggested it would reduce crime and
under-age drinking. I suppose it depends on how the authorities
react to it. Say there’s a problem in a particular pub with
under-age drinking – you could have edicts from local licensing
magistrates demanding that all young people there should be
required to show their card.
“The smart facility means that people will be able to track
where that person has been because they’ll need it to go into
schools and college, they’ll have a record of what courses they’ve
attended, what they’ve bought and so on. It’s a worry that it
hasn’t been debated much at all. Because Connexions is very
education-¼led, social services and the voluntary sector can
feel they haven’t been consulted – and they have always been far
more hot on civil liberties and children’s rights. It’s important
that they get involved now to help shape these new services to
reflect the needs and views of young people.”
Another concern, gaining momentum as Connexions pilots begin to
recruit more and more personal advisers, is that of staffing. Even
if they are not directly affected by the programme, social care
professionals are likely to develop a keen personal interest in the
job opportunities created.
In personal advisers, Connexions has effectively created a new
profession, complete with its own diploma. The jobs are, in the
main, open to those with pre-existing social care, youth work,
teaching, or careers advice qualifications. After a mere 150 hours
(about a month) of training, full-time personal advisers will earn
anything between £15,000 and £35,000, sometimes with a
car thrown in.
The implications for social care staff with itchy feet are
clear. You can earn much the same money with a lot less hassle as a
personal adviser as you can, for instance, as a child protection
social worker. Social services directors are already making dire
predictions of doom, and representations have been made in the
strongest terms to the Department of Health. The voluntary sector
and youth work organisations are, understandably, wringing their
hands in despair.
Moira Gibb is president of the Association of Directors of
Social Services. She feels that Connexions should be regarded as “a
positive and interesting development”, but is not alone in raising
alarm at the prospect of newly qualified social workers leaving in
droves to fill what some have speculated could be tens of thousands
“There’s obviously some anxiety about everyone fishing in the
same pool of staff, but we’ve had some reassurance from the pilots
that it’s not an issue.”
“There seem to be more people from education and careers
backgrounds going into it than from social work. But it remains an
anxiety,” she says.
Ultimately, young people are going to benefit from Connexions in
one way or another. Every 13-19-year-old will have a personal
adviser with a unique investment in them. Good advisers will
support teenagers as they make life-changing decisions, and help
them negotiate a myriad of separate agencies. They could even act
as advocates in the all-too-frequent cases where agencies are
either engaged in fierce competition, or trying to pass the buck.
But, for the moment, what the programme holds for professionals is
anyone’s guess. CC
1 Social Exclusion Unit, Bridging the Gap: New
Opportunities for 16-18-year-olds not in Education, Employment and
Training, Stationery Office, 1999
2 Anne Weinstock, occasional paper, Connexions Service,
Breaking the barriers between young people and
The first phase of implementing the Connexions Service begins
next month, writes Jacqui Newvell. What does this mean for the
schools, agencies and professionals who will be affected, if not
actively involved? Though elements of the scheme have been piloted,
many are still unclear as to how the newly-created personal adviser
role will work within the existing service framework.
Personal advisers lie at the heart of the Connexions service.
Drawn from a range of backgrounds – the careers service, youth
work, social services and teaching, as well as the voluntary and
community sectors – their job will be to remove the barriers that
prevent young people from securing employment, training or further
education when they leave school.
Personal advisers will be based in a variety of locations:
schools, young offending teams (YOTs), leaving care teams and
further education colleges, as well as in the community. Their
remit will be to meet the needs of all 13-19-year-olds, but
particularly those who have disengaged with the education
A personal adviser will work with a young person to identify
their individual needs. For example, if a young person is not
attending school, their adviser will liaise with parents or carers
and other agencies to determine what the problem is and seek to
rectify it. The idea is that personal advisers, who will be trained
to adapt and build on their current skills, will be multi-talented
individuals fulfilling a number of roles. If they don’t have the
answer, then they’ll know someone who does.
Social care professionals are sure to welcome this holistic,
child-centred approach. At last it has been recognised that young
people do not see education as the centre of their universe,
particularly those who are experiencing difficulties in their
lives. The personal adviser role – a single link to what many
vulnerable young people feel is a confusing network of support and
information – is also a concept we should value. What is still
uncertain is how it will work in practice.
The first question to be asked is whether the complexity of the
role has been underestimated. We know how challenging it is working
with vulnerable and disadvantaged young people. To do it well
requires a high level of skill and previous experience. Personal
advisers, irrespective of their experience, are required to engage
with young people after a six-month training course. How can
someone outside the social care field expect to meet the complex
needs of a vulnerable young person without having ever done it
before, when senior social workers are struggling in their
There is also the matter of authority. As well as working
directly with the young people, personal advisers will be dealing
with a wide variety of professionals, including teachers, education
social workers and parents, and in many cases will have to argue
for the young person. In schools, head teachers will have the final
say whether or not a child is excluded. So just how much authority
will a personal adviser have?
A further question is whether personal advisers will be able to
transcend barriers to joint working. We must not forget that pupil
inclusion is about changing attitudes and behaviours. As the
Connexions programme develops, management teams need to make sure
the motivation to change continues; otherwise personal advisers
risk becoming simply another link in the chain.
Finally, what about the young people themselves? Will they have
a choice as to who their personal adviser will be? One thing we
know for certain: if they don’t get on with their personal adviser,
they won’t work with them – and what happens then?
The answer to all these questions is that we don’t know yet.
What we do know is that Connexions is a radical proposal, which
takes into account the specific needs of vulnerable teenagers. We
also know from the mapping of existing services that personal
advisers have been able to reach some individuals who until now
have fallen through the net.
It is through the pilot projects and the phasing of the service
that we will be able to test what does and doesn’t work: the
reality is that we may not have a complete national programme for
another two years. I remain optimistic that as the service develops
we will see clear examples of the value personal advisers can bring
to agencies, and the positive contributions they can make to young
Jacqui Newvell is manager of the Pupil Inclusion Unit at
the National Children’s Bureau.