Faulty connexions

Inspectors have reported worrying inconsistencies in Connexions
services across the UK, as some partnerships struggle to become
more than just careers advice bureaux. Sarah Wellard reports.

Three years after the launch of Connexions and as a second
highly critical report into a Connexions partnership is published,
it’s time to ask how well new Labour’s flagship
programme for teenagers is working.

The big idea was for a “youth brokering” service to replace the
old careers service, which would focus broadly on young
people’s personal development, helping them overcome barriers
to educational achievement and employment. Although seeking to
provide a service for every 13 to 19 year old in England, the 47
Connexions partnerships are supposed to be targeted primarily at
the 170,000 young people not in education, employment and training
and other youngsters facing multiple disadvantage.

Last month’s Ofsted report on North London Connexions
describes the partnership as having “significant weaknesses”. The
report describes practice as “too variable” and finds that
achievement levels are unsatisfactory and that the partnership does
not provide value for money. Lack of baseline data means the
partnership does not know whether it is meeting its targets.
Serious and widespread difficulties are also identified by the
Ofsted inspection into the Milton Keynes, Oxfordshire and
Buckinghamshire partnership.

But the news is not all bad. Ofsted reports for Cheshire and
Warrington, Lincolnshire and Rutland, Coventry and Warwickshire and
the West of England describe the partnerships as “good” and
highlight many aspects of Connexions which are working well. And
all the reports say that much of the front-line work of Connexions
staff is of a high standard.

Tom Wylie, chief executive of the National Youth Agency,
believes some of the weaknesses being identified by Ofsted are
inherent in the way Connexions was set up. He describes the report
into Milton Keynes, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Connexions as
“one of the worst reports I’ve ever read” and points to the
inspectors’ damning conclusion that resources are deployed to
meet the needs of the contractors – rather than the service being
designed to meet the needs of potential users. “The careers
companies were able to define what the new service would be,” he
says. “In a mad dash to be seen to be doing something, [the
government] focused on the careers services, who are still in
charge in most parts of the country.”

It’s hard to say how successfully partnerships are
focusing their efforts on supporting young people at risk, because
the Ofsted reports on Connexions do not set out how the money is
being spent – unlike the reports into the youth service for
example. And with some partnerships only starting work this spring,
it’s premature to assess what impact they are having on the
numbers of young people who disengage from education, employment
and training.

A fundamental question, however, is how far what is essentially
a reconstituted careers service, with its focus on one-to-one
advice and guidance sessions, is able to provide the kinds of
interventions needed to re-engage disaffected young people.

A “customer satisfaction survey” carried out for Connexions in
2001 found that most young people were aware of Connexions before
the interview and 90 per cent rated it highly.1 More
than two-thirds said it had helped them make decisions about their
future, but a much smaller percentage had discussed issues like
money, stress or drugs and alcohol with Connexions workers.

As Wylie points out, young people won’t raise the issues
which really matter to them in the context of a discussion about
jobs and careers. He says: “You need settings which are more than
just the carefully framed one-to-ones. You need to be able to work
with groups – the power of peer group may be what is preventing
young people moving on, especially boys who don’t want to
appear too bright in front of their mates.”

And if Connexions is to help young people overcome barriers to
achievement, partnerships will need to have clout with agencies
like housing. A young man who has been thrown out and is sleeping
on friends’ floors is going to find it hard to focus on his

Personal advisers (PAs), drawn from a variety of professional
backgrounds including careers advice and youth and community work,
are the key personnel in the service. Generally speaking former
careers advisers work within schools offering the universal
service, while specialist PAs do outreach work or are based in
community organisations and work with young people who have

Partnerships are supposed to ensure that all their PAs – whether
directly employed or subcontracted – complete a centrally designed
training programme, with the aim of achieving a seamless
profession. The Ofsted reports reveal variation in how far
partnerships have managed to get their staff trained, with around
half of all PAs awaiting training.

Bob Coles, professor of social policy at York university, who is
leading an evaluation of partnership-working in Connexions funded
by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, does not believe that training
alone will deliver the necessary transformation. “It’s highly
likely that the response to training will be mixed. Even if it
proves to be a road to Damascus experience, lots of other things
have to be changed with it – management, caseloads,
record-keeping.” He adds: “There are still managers who
haven’t done the Connexions training, even in the pilot
areas. Unless people are managed to do things differently they will
continue to do things as they have always done them.”

Coles also questions whether the budget – around double that
previously allocated to careers – is enough to achieve the kind of
service originally conceived. He says: “Two or three years ago I
would have been a fan of Connexions but people are beginning to
wonder whether it will deliver what it was supposed to do.”

Public sector union Unison, which represents most personal
advisers including former careers service staff, and youth and
community workers, has argued against the all-on-one personal
adviser role, and believes Connexions can best meet its objectives
by multi-agency teams in which youth workers, careers advisers and
social workers have distinct and strengthened roles. Unison reports
difficult industrial relations in several parts of the country,
including one area (Cheshire) which recently received a positive
Ofsted report. Keith Bradley, regional officer for Unison describes
industrial relations as “at an all time low.” He says,
“There’s a lot of hostility from our members about Saturday
working which the company are trying to impose. But that’s
the tip of the iceberg. There are too many demands and not enough
resources going in. My members have shown a lot of commitment to
the new company but are being burnt out by everything that is
expected of them.”

And on Merseyside Unison members have staged four one-day
strikes in a dispute about pay and conditions. Members are unhappy
about employers imposing a contract which they claim involves extra
hours for no extra pay for some staff and preserves pay disparity
between PAs according to their previous contracts, as well as about
proposals for performance-related pay.

It’s easy to see the problems for the point of view of the
Connexions partnerships. In response to central directives they are
trying to transform the kind of service they provide, with more
advisers available outside 9 to 5. But does Saturday opening really
imply the kind of transformation to the deliver the new youth
support workers envisaged by the Social Exclusion Unit and backed
by the prime minister back in 2000?

Wylie believes there has been a shift in emphasis since Anne
Weinstock’s arrival as chief executive of the Connexions
Service Central Unit. “They’ve begun to emphasise access to
personal development opportunities,” he says. And given the huge
organisational and cultural change involved in establishing a new
national service, it is hardly surprising that some areas are
finding things difficult. But there’s still a long way to go
to deliver the kind of joined-up youth broker service envisaged at
the outset. In many parts of the country Connexions is still the
careers service doing what they’ve always done, with a few
extras bolted on.

BMRB Social Research, Customer
Satisfaction Survey: Improving Your Connexions
, DfES,

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