Analysis: Youth Services - What lies ahead for Connexions?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

In less than six months' time England's Connexions services will come under the control of local authorities. But for many the transition is proving hard as councils make significant cuts in services and funding. Shafik Meghji reports.

"Life is pleasant," science fiction author Isaac Asimov wrote. "Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome."

It is a sentiment that anyone involved with Connexions services could be forgiven for noting with a wry smile. The service, which was launched in 2000 to provide young people in England with information and advice on careers and learning, is currently undergoing a transition of its own - and although less bleak than the one described by Asimov, it is nevertheless proving unsettling.

In its Youth Matters green paper published in 2005, the government decided to give local authorities control of Connexions with the aim of producing more joined-up services. Until then Connexions services were funded via direct grants. This power does not come into effect until April 2008, but many local authorities are already sorting out new arrangements.

Merging services

Earlier this month, for example, Hampshire County Council decided to merge functions previously delivered by youth services and South Central Connexions staff with its children's services department - a decision that has been criticised by young people who use the services (CYP Now, 17-23 October).

The council has promised no frontline jobs will be lost - indeed it claims numbers will actually go up - and that young people will benefit from longer opening hours. However, there are fears services will be moved from individual Connexions "shops" to council-owned buildings, such as libraries and youth centres. "My fears are for the young people, not for the centres themselves," says Gill Davis, a team leader at South Central Connexions. "They need to have confidential advice. You don't give guidance where you don't have a confidential room."

But concerns are not limited to the young people who use Connexions services - many employees are also worried about job cuts and changes to their working practices and responsibilities. "Morale among staff at Connexions centres is pretty grim at the moment," says Jon Richards, a senior national officer at trade union Unison, which represents many youth workers and Connexions staff members.

Susie Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Principal Youth and Community Officers, acknowledges these concerns. "There's a degree of concern about job retention and moving over to a new working culture," she says.

But for Chris Evans, executive director of the Institute of Career Guidance, the UK's largest professional association for guidance practitioners, the picture is not clear-cut. "In some parts of the country the transition has been going like a dream. However, in other parts of the country it has been a disaster. Overall the process has been slower than expected and there's nowhere that hasn't had at least some difficulties with it.

"The idea of going back to local authorities is reassuring for some staff - many involved in career guidance did not want to leave local authorities in the first place, when the service was originally privatised. Others, however, say they feel that under local authority control they won't have the freedom to act independently. They are also worried about the capacity of local authorities to manage services."

Funding is another major concern. Richards argues many Connexions services are taking the opportunity of the transition process to "slim down" services, while there are also fears some local authorities may plan to transfer career advice funds to other areas. "We are currently doing a survey to find out the level of cuts to services nationally - in some areas quite large sums are involved - which will come out in the next couple of weeks," Richards says.

Lack of funding

For Evans the problem is even more fundamental. "Everyone is saying that we need more career guidance, but funding for it has actually fallen over the last 10 years," he says. "There is a limited pot of money available, but massive targets to achieve. There's simply not enough money to do everything."

Roberts says the government should consider modifying its targets for the sector during this period of change. However, she highlights another complicated issue, namely the variations in the quality of services provided by different Connexions centres.

"It is such a jigsaw," she says. "In places where Connexions centres have been of a good quality, where they provide what young people want and need, it would be best to let them just get on with it. However, in areas where it has not been so positive that's obviously different."

With all the concern about structures, staffing, targets and funding, however, it can be easy to forget the most important group affected by the changes - the young people who actually use the services. Says Roberts: "At this time of great structural change people should remember what it is they are in there for - the young people - and try to retain a focus on them."

KEY POINTS

- There are 57 Connexions partnerships in England, providing services for 13- to 19-year-olds. A 2003 survey showed there was a 92 per cent awareness rate and a 93 per cent satisfaction rate among teenagers

- Young people are strongly involved in Connexions: they sit on recruitment panels and help to design programmes

- From April 2008, instead of direct grants, funding will pass to local authorities.