Is flagship service for young people suffering from loose connections?

With the 47th and final Connexions partnership going live last
April the whole of England is now covered by the government’s
flagship service to support young people. On the face of it, most
young people seem to be being served well, with eight of the 12
Ofsted partnerships inspected so far rated overall as good or very
good.

Reaction should, therefore, be positive. But there is some
criticism that good services for some young people have been at the
expense of help for others.

College leaders dispute whether Connexions is a service for all
young people as the government claims. Judith Norrington, director
of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges, says some
leaders feel Connexions is focusing its resources towards young
people who are not in education, employment or training (known as
Neets) at the expense of other young people.

She says: “I’m delighted that the Neets are getting support –
that’s critical. But it’s also crucial that other students are
getting that support as well.”

The Hereford & Worcester Connexions partnership cut its
advisers providing information and advice in schools and colleges
from 48 in its first year to 14.5 in September. Over the same
period, the number of advisers involved in targeted preventive work
in schools and colleges has increased from 28 to 36.5 and those
working with Neets has increased from 29 to 57.

John Tredwell, principal of Worcester Sixth Form College, says the
number of personal advisers for non-Neets and those not at risk of
social exclusion or dropping out of education was reduced due to a
funding shortage in partnerships as they move from their first year
into their second.

“If the government really has the aim of helping Neets, it has to
direct new services to them,” he says.

A Connexions spokesperson insists that personal advisers working
with Neets and those at risk of social exclusion are also available
to help other young people. “We expect advisers to be able to
deliver the full advisory role to young people so that the targets
and objectives for Connexions are met. So, for example, advisers
could work with the Neet group, and also deliver careers
guidance.”

A parliamentary question on the issue is yet to receive an answer,
despite being due last month. Phil Willis, Liberal Democrats
spokesperson on education and employment, wants to know how many
Connexions personal advisers have been involved in providing
information and advice in schools and colleges, targeted preventive
work in schools and colleges and information and advice to Neets
over the past two years in each Connexions region.

Concerns have also been raised by MPs this year about the
relationship between Connexions partnerships and the voluntary
sector.

Connexions guidance states that in order for the service to meet
the diverse needs of young people, partnerships have to work with
voluntary organisations. But critics argue that some partnerships
do not.

Susanne Rauprich, chief executive of the National Council for
Voluntary Youth Services, is concerned about this although the
voluntary sector’s experience with Connexions is improving as the
service becomes more established. “There are still some Connexions
partnerships which don’t contract with the voluntary sector at all
and I find that a little bit worrying,” she says.

Under the guidance, partnerships can enter into contracts with
larger voluntary sector and community organisations to deliver
services and there is no financial limit placed on the value of
these arrangements.

A spokesperson from The Prince’s Trust sees it as “essential that
Connexions works in partnership with the voluntary sector” and uses
its experience. “They are the people who have probably been there
for 20 years or so,” he says.

Amanda Allard, senior public policy officer, at children’s charity
NCH, says the voluntary sector may be able to reach those who
Connexions can’t. “There are concerns to the extent that Connexions
really reaches young people who need the most help,” she says,
questioning the service’s ability to do outreach work given that
many Connexions advisers come through the careers service.

But Connexions says there is already a strong relationship across
the country between Connexions and the voluntary sector. A
spokesperson says the Connexions Service National Unit will be
introducing an “expanded set of requirements for partnerships on
working with the voluntary sector and community sector from
2004-5″.

He adds that support for partnerships struggling to engage with the
voluntary and community sector will take place simultaneously as
part of the new unit’s revised strategy for involving the
sector.

Calling for improved guidance, Rauprich says the experience of the
voluntary sector varies from area to area and that some
partnerships should be better informed. “There is not a very clear
understanding of the role that the voluntary sector can play, the
groups that can be reached and the way the sector works. Some
partnerships don’t see the benefit of investing in the voluntary
sector.”

As well as entering into contracts, partnerships can award grants
of up to £30,000 a year to small community groups to help them
provide services. The money is intended for groups that are unable
to deal with the formalities of contracts. Partnerships can
allocate up to 5 per cent of their grant funding from the
Connexions Service National Unit to providing such grants.

Rauprich says the sum partnerships invest in this way varies
throughout the country. But it often involves partnerships putting
a personal adviser into an organisation when it would sometimes be
better to allow a group to use the money to build up its capacity
so that it may be able to enter into contractual arrangements in
the future.

There are also mixed views on how Connexions partnerships are
serving young people with mental health problems. Dinah Morley,
deputy director of children’s mental health charity YoungMinds,
says some personal advisers need to improve their service to this
group. “We are concerned about the capacity of personal advisers to
identify mental health problems and do anything about them,” she
says.

Nic Rowland-Crosby, co-ordinator for Developing Connexions, a
project following the development of the service, at the Foundation
for People with Learning Disabilities, agrees: “There are
difficulties in some areas where personal advisers feel they would
like more training on the early signs of mental health problems and
how to access specialist help.”

Morley believes that some personal advisers are too focused on
moving young people into education, employment or training and fail
to look at underlying issues, such as mental illness. She wants
mental health awareness training given to every Connexions personal
adviser and for Connexions and child and adolescent mental health
services (CAMHS) to work together on forming plans for young
people.

But Annie Blunt, head of children and young people’s mental health
at the Mental Health Foundation, believes the current training is
fine. She says it helps personal advisers to relate to young people
which, in turn, helps young people to connect with other services
and in their own personal development.

“One of Connexions’ roles is to give young people access to
personal development opportunities and that’s what improves young
people’s mental health,” she says.

Rowland-Crosby believes there were great improvements in the links
between Connexions partnerships and local CAMHS between October
2002 and May 2003. His project published two reports at these times
on early findings from a project evaluating how Connexions was
serving young people with disabilities, mental health problems,
autistic spectrum disorders, learning difficulties and sensory
impairments.

The full evaluation of Rowland-Crosby’s project is due for
completion next summer. Perhaps that, the Connexions second annual
report, and an answer to Willis’s question will help provide a
clearer picture of how Connexions partnerships are performing and
what still needs to improve.

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