Play your cards right

Connexions cards are supposed to encourage young people to
complete courses and engage with society. Will they work, asks
Anita Pati.

Would you swap three days of college to see Robbie Williams in
the flesh? The Connexions card, a smart card launched in December,
is offering this chance and other incentives to 16 to 19 year olds
to encourage them to stay in education.

The £110m scheme will operate over the next seven years
through a public-private partnership between the Department for
Education and Skills, and Capita, the support services company
working with the Criminal Records Bureau and operator of
London’s congestion charge scheme.

Points are gained by completing courses, undergoing work-based
learning, personal development and voluntary activities. Points can
be redeemed against consumer goods and services including book
vouchers, mobile ring tones and cinema tickets with discounts
available on sports wear, computer games, beauty treatments and
driving lessons.

The DfES has described it as aiming “to encourage young people
to continue in learning by helping to reduce the cost of learning
while motivating them to fulfil their potential and improve their
career and life choices.”

Some 200,000 cards have already been issued with a hefty target
of 1.7 million by the end of next year. A total of 1,300 schools,
colleges and workplace training providers have already signed up to
the scheme, which is only available in England. This target figure
is based on the DfES’s estimate of the number of 16-18 year
olds in the UK.

The Connexions smartcard contains personal data including the
young person’s name, date of birth, contact details and
colour photograph, and can be used as an ID card to provide proof
of age. The only other stored information is gender, beginning and
expiry dates of membership, type of card, issue and pin number.

Its genesis was in October 1999, when Tony Blair announced the
smart “youth card” as a response to low staying-on levels in
education. Later it was branded as part of Connexions, a marketing
move intended to stress the links between the initiative and the
Connexions careers advice service.

A phased roll-out started in the North East in autumn 2001 with
the final region launching last December when the scheme was
officially announced.

So far, it is mainly schools and sixth-form colleges who have
been targeted in a massive recruitment drive. They are using the
cards to monitor attendance. A full week earns 100 points; 90 per
cent attendance accordingly racks up 90 points.

Points criteria and discounts vary locally and are geared
towards what the marketers believe will appeal to young people. In
Southport, the card offers a can of Pepsi with a Big Meal Deal at a
local fast food outlet. In Winchester, it lops 10 per cent off
clothing at Stinky Fish Clubwear.

Pivotal to the card’s success is the website (
where add-ons such as career advice and links provide a sensible
framework for the glossy rewards and celebrity interviews touted by
the site. Individuals use a pin and card number to access their own
part of the site where they can check their points balance.

Among the offers on the website is an autographed photo of
Martin Freeman (who plays Tim Canterbury in The Office), which is
being auctioned at a current winning bid of 1,500 points –
that’s nearly two terms worth of college attendance. But the
breakfast for five in Oldham is proving less popular at 200 points
top bid.

However, early signs indicate that there have been some teething
problems. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been more
administrative problems than anticipated, especially regarding
Capita’s electronic attendance monitoring devices which are
positioned outside classrooms and through which the cards are

A head teacher at one participating school in Bracknell said
that they’d had to withdraw the scheme because of technical
problems. Other colleges say they are considering implementation
but will wait and see before committing themselves.

Some commentators have turned their noses up at the whole
concept. Elements of the press have attacked it as an infringement
of civil liberties. Others have voiced concerns that the card is a
back-door route for David Blunkett to get everyone to carry ID

Mike Fortune-Wood, founder of Home Education UK, a
parents’ support group, says: “The rewards are only there to
entice people into taking the card. Theoretically the card is
voluntary. But there are a lot of services that are becoming
difficult to obtain if you are between 16 and 19. We think this is
a softening up exercise to get young people to accept ID cards. Why
would the government, or companies, start handing out rewards to
people for no particularly good reason?”

But, says a DfES spokesperson, “It’s absolutely not an ID
card. It has one simple purpose – to encourage participation and
learning beyond 16. The card is completely voluntary. There is no
more sinister agenda.” He is also at pains to stress that all data
is held in full compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998.

Connexions says that the benefits for retailers are increased
footfall from young people within the stores and customer loyalty.
Participating retailers and brands include Reiss clothing, Toni
& Guy, Kit-Kat, Clearasil and Staedtler.

Another parents’ group, Action on Rights for Children in
Education, believes that providing consumer incentives to young
people is missing the point, “rather than dealing with the
underlying problems within the education system which discourage
them from learning”.

Additionally, there are some concerns that the scheme may not be
as benign as portrayed since the recent DfES announcement about its
new Behaviour Improvement Programme. This involves 61 local
education authorities who will be encouraged to develop
anti-truancy strategies over the next three years, and which
include plans to introduce “electronic registration systems which
confirm the attendance of each pupil in every class, and can reduce
unauthorised absence rates by up to 10 per cent”.

What will Capita do with the information once the person has
turned 19?

The DfES says that it becomes inactive once the card ceases to
be used at 19. It is, however, held for six years to comply with
National Audit Office rules regarding information which has
“financial implications”. According to the DfES this is no
different to businesses having to hold financial records for up to
seven years, and is a legal requirement.

The DfES also states that employers, police, social services and
benefit agencies cannot access to the data. “The only people who
have access are the Connexions card administrators to help them run
the scheme and the organisations that are involved such as the
partners and rewards providers.” However, with more than 6,000
retailers involved, you would be forgiven for wondering whether
such valuable information might one day be mined for marketing

It is still early days for the Connexions card. A monitoring
system is in place to measure its success although no feedback is
yet available. As with Robbie, it started with muscle and glam but
who knows where it will lead?

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