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personal advisers within the connexions service

The British government set about establishing a new professional grouping in England. What was the role of personal advisers within the Connexions Service, and what were the main issues involved in setting up this area of work?

contents:  introduction · the role of the personal adviser ·  training for the new role · issues · further reading and references 

It could be argued that the blend of theory, knowledge and skills required in the new role of personal adviser within the Connexions Service are unique. The role draws upon expertise from what we have traditionally known as youth work, careers work and welfare rights - with a dash of mentoring thrown in. There is a strong casework (or more accurately case management) element, combined with the ability to practice in informal settings, advice and educate about available options and to work with people so that they are disposed and confident to enter further education, training or work. However, there are already workers within careers service, youth services and other organizations that effectively combine these skills and areas of expertise. One example that comes close to this role is that of the informal educator working in a further education college or as a learning mentors in a school. Classically, they have to undertake a mix of casework, projects and making contact (see Jeffs and Smith 1999: 101-104).

It was Bridging the Gap that first suggested that there may be room for a new specialism or professional group. One proposal floated was that of the 'youth broker' or personal adviser - an idea put forward by DEMOS (Bentley and Gurumurthy 1999).  The belief is that a network of personal advisers (within the new connexions service in England) will cut down fragmentation of services:

They will take responsibility for ensuring all the needs of a young person are met in an integrated and coherent manner. Personal Advisers’ work will range from: ensuring school attendance pre-16; to the provision of information regarding future learning and work opportunities; to more in-depth support in gaining access to education and training and the brokering of access to, plus coordination of, specialist services. Personal Advisers will be deployed in a variety of locations, including schools, FE colleges and community settings so that young people can have access to them in the most appropriate way. The Connexions Service will have a ‘shop front’ presence, and make innovative use of technology to encourage access by all young people. (DfEE 2000: 35) 

For those at school and in the 13-16 age range the personal adviser role was originally going to fulfilled by school-based learning mentors - but subsequently the DfES talked about the appointment of personal advisers. Personal Advisers will also be located in further education colleges and training providers. Youth Offending Teams and Social Service Departments will also have 'Young Person's Advisers'. Lastly, it is expected that within community and voluntary provision there will be advisers who can offer support for 'vulnerable and disadvantaged groups' and various programmes and facilities. It is suggested that this personal adviser role would be undertaken by 'community leaders', project managers etc.

The role of the personal adviser

The particular mix of tasks and responsibilities is clearly going to be different as to where personal advisers are located. However, a number of elements stand out:

Much of the work will entail one-to-one support and guidance. Some of the work will be very close to the advisory and guidance role previously exercised by careers officers; some much like the sort of support and exploration previously facilitated by informal educators and youth workers in schools, colleges and youth and community groups. 

There is a strong emphasis on surveillance and monitoring. Advisers are expected to keep to contact with the young people allotted to them and to keep records and enter details into the national database. 

Young people who are seen to be 'at risk' or who present 'problems' will be a priority for intervention. It is envisaged that general advice and support will be needed 'at those key episodes in each young person’s life when information, advice and support on educational and vocational issues will be necessary to help them make decisions that affect their future'.  In-depth support is necessary for 'those at risk of not participating effectively in education and training. This group include those: whose aspirations do not reflect their abilities; who do not attend school regularly, who have learning difficulties or disabilities, who are unlikely to achieve as they should and those who are not undertaking any education or training post-16.' Finally, integrated and specialist support should be available to those 'facing substantial, multiple problems preventing them from engaging with learning, who are likely to be involved with a number of different professionals engaged in education, social welfare, criminal justice, health and housing. Equally, we will integrate support for the especially gifted. ' (DfEE 2000: 37). 

Personal advisers will be expected to be advocates, especially for those who are vulnerable or who have special or particular needs. 'They will need Personal Advisers to take effective action on their behalf to help them gain access to a range of more specialist services, to ensure that barriers are overcome in a coordinated way, and keep in touch with their progress.' (DfEE 2000: 37).

The role entails a significant amount of work with other agencies, groups, and individuals. As can be seen from the extract below, personal advisers have to work schools, training providers, parents and carers, local community groups, and specialist services.

Targets and outcomes (rather than the process of learning) are a defining feature of their work within the Connexions Strategy. The service will be an outcome-driven service, 'allowing local discretion over delivery, but with clear targets to cover the multi-agency nature of its work' (DfEE 2000: 34). The principal targets will relate to participation and attainment in education, training or work. Advisers will be given a caseload of named individuals and will be expected to perform in relation to local targets (linked to national figures for the Connexions Service).

 

The role of the personal adviser

6.13 In order to provide the high quality information, advice and support young people need, the Personal Adviser’s role will include:

Working with, or as part of, the school or college or training provider Most young people under the age of 16 are likely to work with Personal Advisers based in schools - building on the current model being introduced in Excellence in Cities areas. But there will also be outreach and access to Personal Advisers through community and voluntary organisations and FE Colleges, which will be of particular relevance to those young people who are excluded from school. Although much careers advice will continue to be given by careers teachers, Learning Mentors will also provide careers advice, or re f e r to specialist careers advisers, in addition to their other support, guidance and help to young people. A key function will be to enable mainstream educational institutions to become m o re effective in meeting the needs of all children and young people and developing their ability to lead independent lives. Further Education Colleges, training providers and employers will all have access to Personal Advisers.

One-to-one support and providing information, advice and guidance The effectiveness of the one-to-one relationship with a young person over a sustained period will be a crucial determinant of future life and educational success. The Personal Adviser will have the skills to assist the young person in navigating key life episodes - for example, finishing compulsory education or leaving care - and will be equipped with the skills to meet the needs of young people who may be particularly vulnerable due to background, disability, health or other factors. We will be looking at ways of making the Service flexible so that Personal Adviser support can be based on the needs of the young person, rather than being defined by agency boundaries.

Assessment, planning and review Personal Advisers will be trained in diagnostic skills within an integrated assessment, planning and review approach to ensure that they can identify the important issues which may affect a young person’s ability to participate . They will also be equipped to undertake non-specialist assessments in basic skills, drug abuse and mental health in order to make specialist referrals where appropriate. Assessment, Planning and Review are considered in more detail below.

Working with parents and carers. The Personal Adviser will work with parents and carers as active partners in the education of their children and to ensure that higher expectations are reinforced in the home setting and support given to the development of young people’s skills and aspirations.

Community support. The Personal Adviser will access local welfare, health, arts, sport, study support, and guidance networks to assist young people to participate in and gain maximum benefit from education and training provided in a variety of settings. This will contribute to neighbourhood renewal and ensure that the whole community plays a role in the education and development of its young people. Voluntary organisations and community groups will provide part of the Personal Adviser service. The Connexions Service will encourage and provide appropriate training to members of the community to act as mentors. The service will also encourage young people to become involved in their communities, for instance through Millennium Volunteers and the Neighbourhood Support Fund. Community involvement is considered in more detail below.

Working with other agencies. The Personal Adviser will take effective action to broker access to specialist agencies, for example social services, child and adolescent mental health services, housing and young people’s drug prevention services, to ensure that barriers to learning are overcome and that the young person has an integrated support network to enable them to remain within education or training.

Keeping in contact and monitoring. Personal Advisers will help the Connexions Service maintain contact with all the young people in its area through an up to date and comprehensive register. This will allow them to keep in contact with all young people they work with and ensure that there is detailed monitoring regarding progress and outcomes for those young people receiving in-depth and specialist support . 

reproduced from http://www.connexions.gov.uk/chapter_6.htm

Training for the new role

It is expected that personal advisers will be drawn from a range of backgrounds including careers guidance, youth work, social work, teaching and youth justice, as well as from the voluntary and community sectors. The government sees the development of the network of personal advisers as presenting three major challenges:

 a significant cultural change within and between some agencies; 

a recruitment drive to widen the pool of Personal Advisers available over the next few years;

 a focus on raising the skills levels of professionals to those of the best.

A lot of thinking has still to be done concerning the sort of knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary for the occupational grouping, and just how people are to be trained. The scale of the task has led the government to draw back from some of their initial intentions. The early priorities have concerned the development of the initial training of personal advisers and the setting up of an introductory Understanding Connexions training programme.

Training for personal advisers involves all those appointed, irrespective of their background or expertise, undertaking a standard package - centrally designed but run by sub-contractors. It basically amounts to a 60 credit programme at level 2 of a degree. (In other words it is equivalent to half of the second year of a degree - although there is some debate around this at present). Its orientation to guidance and case management can be seen by the titles of its five modules: 

one: connexions: managing referrals, assessment and engagement with young people

two: connexions: working to secure change with young people

three: connexions: securing an optimal response from all agencies and the community

four: connexions: evidence based, record keeping and communication

five: connexions: improving service delivery to young people through reflective practice in context

Issues

As might be expected there are a considerable number of issues and questions surrounding this initiative. Many of problems associated with the role arise out of tensions within the thinking underpinning the Connexions Strategy. They also arise out of two key design flaws identified by Tony Watts (2001). The first is linked to the claim that the Connexions Service is designed not just for young people at risk of social exclusion, but for all young people. It is supposed to be both a targeted and a universal service.

The conventional and logical way to reconcile these dual aims is first to design the universal service and then extend it to ensure that the distinctive needs of the targeted group are satisfactorily addressed. But Connexions was designed on the reverse basis… In other words, universality was a second-order consideration. As a result, efforts were made to extrapolate to all young people measures designed to address the needs of the primary target-group. If the needs of young people at risk were perceived to require the merging of services, then the services must be merged as a totality. If young people at risk were to have a Personal Adviser, then all young people must have one. (Watts 2001)

The second flaw identified by Watts is that the original Demos aim of merging the youth, careers and educational welfare services was only part-implemented. The only service brought into the Connexions Service as a whole was the Careers Service. Other services remained as entities, but were expected to take part in, and help fund, Connexions. 

Here I just want to outline some of the main concerns:

What is to be the dominant tradition of practice? Perhaps the question posed by these developments concerns the fundamental orientation of the new practitioners. Will they appeal to educational concerns or bureaucratic ones? (Indeed, a Conservative spokesperson, Theresa May, soon grumbled that what was being created was an 'army of bureaucrats'). Is the experience of being with personal advisers to be one of a space to explore and to learn; or is it to be one of direction? A further set of questions surrounds potential tensions between the advice and guidance frame of reference and that of education. One of the more significant here is whether young people will be 'participants in dialogue', or 'clients' of the new advisers. 

What has become clear as the training programme has developed, and people been employed, is that the orientation of the personal adviser role within the Connexions Service is essentially toward case management, placement and advice. In a sense this can be seen as the ‘natural’ outcome of trends that had been occurring within both careers and youth work over a number of years, but there is a serious downside involved. The role entails a shift from casework to case management. The role (and the system in which it makes sense) is oriented to the achievement of externally set targets concerning the behaviour of the young people it deals with – and the completion of the necessary paperwork to facilitate and demonstrate this. It is not oriented to working with young people to explore how and where they may flourish, and to develop their own strategies for growth. The role also entails a shift from education to placement and advice. While the educational practice of youth and careers services in England has left a lot to be desired - at least there was in the case of youth work the possibility of appealing to educative statements of purpose or traditions of practice. The fact that work is to be governed by crude outcome targets does spell danger to developmental work and a narrowing of focus (as was found when careers services were taken out of local education authority hands and placed with careers companies). 

Can careers guidance can be sustained at a satisfactory level within the Connexions Service. The new role of personal advisor was essentially a ‘bright idea’ by people who did not have a solid grounding in the practice and nature of vocational guidance. By adopting this conception and drawing in personnel and funding from existing careers services, the government has effectively reduced the resources that can be devoted to careers guidance and raised the danger of a ‘serious erosion of professional standards’ (Watts 2001). Personal advisors have to work with a range of issues and problems and will not be able, in the normal course of their activities, to develop a specialist knowledge of career opportunities and questions. Furthermore, careers guidance and advice will only form a small part of the new training programme for personal advisers within the Connexions Service. 

What will be the impact of the emphasis on surveillance and record-keeping? Within the documentation there is a concern with keeping tabs on young people - of monitoring their progress or otherwise, and of feeding this into a local and national system of records. There are obvious, broader, questions here concerning this further extension of state record keeping and the use to which databases will be put. Beyond this there are inevitable questions for practice. These include how such record-keeping will impact upon relationships with the people advisers work with; boundary questions concerning disclosure and confidentiality; and upon how practitioners view their role (does it strengthen or lead to a more bureaucratic orientation - see above?) 

Is the role too wide? At present, perhaps because the notion of the personal adviser originated from so-called 'think-tanks', there is a lack of any worked-through understanding of the role. It looks to be rather broad - and would entail a significant degree of sophistication on the part of the adviser if it is to work at any satisfactory level. Being able to switch between different modes or traditions of practice is difficult - and this role involves several. What is more, competence within each is required. At one point there may be a need for open-ended conversation, at another more focused interviewing, at another a need for teaching ... and so on. The new role will also call upon a developed ability to make appropriate assessments of very different situations and needs. In part, advisers will be assisted by specialists e.g. around learning difficulties and offending, but many practitioners will have to develop in this area. It may be that new specialisms will emerge. Almost certainly, there will be many advisers who are not at home with key aspects of their job.

It is still unclear how far the personal adviser within the Connexions Service is expected to be ‘a first-in-line adviser, a nominated specialist with an additional generic role, a new additional generalist, or a merging of existing specialists into a multi-skilled generalist’ (Watts 2001). Each has very different implications for the knowledge and skill base of personal advisers. There is also a potential question of the erosion of professional standards. 

The notion grew that in the case of career guidance, Personal Advisers might be expected to deliver what was required. But, of course, not all Personal Advisers would have been trained to provide career guidance. It was suggested that a small element of training in a short generic course might fill this gap. This raised the danger of serious erosion of professional standards in service delivery. When, later, a clearer distinction was established between generic Personal Advisers and specialist support in vocational guidance, the issue was still blurred by using the term 'specialist personal advisers' for the latter - these being distinguished from those who wished to become 'fully qualified Connexions personal advisers'. (Watts 2001)

Watts (2001) goes on to comment that locating ‘careers advisers as specialists within a new profession of Personal Advisers, in which they were not regarded as being fully qualified, seemed paradoxical, confusing and indeed demeaning’.

Is there a danger of individualization and inattention to the group and community? The proposals fall in line with other elements of government policy around lifelong learning, learning mentors (Excellence in Cities) and new community schools. There is an increasing focus upon targeting interventions at named individuals rather than working to enhance the readiness and capacity of groups and communities to better meet their members' needs. Essentially a form of case management is proposed as the dominant way of working. People are identified who are in need of intervention in order that they may re-enter education, training or work. Individual action programmes are then devised and implemented. Programmes are then assessed on whether these named individuals return to learning or enter work - rather than on any contribution made to the quality of civic life, personal flourishing or social relationships that arise out of the the process of informal education.

Will the size of caseload preclude developmental work? The government has stated that in order to achieve their task, personal advisers 'will have an appropriate caseload'. The Connexions report continues, 'Existing practice in this area suggests that, each year, a Personal Adviser could work with a small number of young people with multiple problems; but with rather more who require in-depth guidance or only information and advice. In practice, each Personal Adviser is likely to work with a combination of these' (DfEE 2000: 42). The key question here is the size of caseload. Careers officers nationally currently work on a load of between 300 and 400 'cases'. The new personal advisers will be expected to carry a caseload of 30 people requiring integrated and specialist support, 250 people requiring in-depth support, and 800 people requiring general support. Clearly, those in the last category can receive little or nothing by way of personal help, and the scale of expectations concerning the other two groups means that developmental work has little chance. (If we were to compare this with social work this becomes apparent - a social worker would be expected to carry a caseload of around 30). Even this case load will require additional resources. The way that the government appeats to be moving is to have some personal advisers operating with a broad remit, and others offering more intensive support. For example, this is how the role was described in schools: 

PAs may take on a range of roles, subject to the needs and existing provision in an individual school. Some may have a broad remit, offering advice and guidance and referring on to other agencies; others may work intensively with a small caseload. Connexions PAs will complement the work of other support staff, including Learning Mentors and the broader range of business and community mentors which many schools involve to raise aspirations and motivation. The roles, and any PA work with priority groups, will be negotiated as part of the Partnership Agreement with each school, and could include:

stretching able pupils;

working with any at risk of going off track;

giving intensive support to those facing complex problems. (DfEE 2001: 3)

Are there the resources and the people to do the job? To achieve the proposed coverage within the Connexions Service an increase in funding is required. A significant number of personal advisers, it was initially thought, would be recruited/seconded from existing youth and careers services. The government realized that somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 personal advisors would be required. However, there was a major problem. There are only around 7000 careers service advisers in the whole of the UK, and probably around the same number of youth workers. A significant number of the former are still required to provide traditional career guidance, and a significant number of the latter will continue to work outside the Connexions Service and Connexions Strategy. Just whether the additional finances will be forthcoming on the scale required is a matter of some debate. The danger is that there could be significant diversion of funds from the vocational guidance and open youth work arenas.

Last, there are considerable doubts as to whether enough suitably qualified people can be recruited to be personal advisers within the Connexions Service. In June 2001 it was reported that ministers had been warned by senior advisers to slow up the introduction of the Connexions Service because of a crisis in the recruitment of personal advisers (Times Educational Supplement June 15, 2001: 35). At least 13000 advisers are needed over the four years to 2005. Part of the problem lay in the competing plans of other services including the need to expand teacher supply, the desire to recruit an additional 20,000 teaching assistants, developments in school-based learning mentoring, and a continuing demand for project workers within the housing and drugs fields and within youth work itself. There is a particular problem in London and the South East where a strong demand for workers has been exacerbated by high housing costs.  Government advisers have suggested a phasing in of the Connexions Service over four years to 2005.

References

Bentley, T. and Gurumurchy, R. (1999) Destination Unknown. Engaging with the problems of marginalized youth, London: DEMOS.

Department for Education and Employment (2000) Connexions. The best start in life for every young person, London: DfEE. http://www.connexions.gov.uk/strategy.htm 

Department for Education and Employment (2000) Implementing Connexions in Schools, London: Department for Education and Employment. http://www.connexions.gov.uk/pdf/Connexsch.pdf 

Department for Education and Employment (1999) Learning to Succeed. A new framework for post 16 learning, London: The Stationery Office (Cm 4392). executive summary

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1999) Informal Education. Conversation, democracy and learning, Ticknall: Education Now.

Social Exclusion Unit (1999) Bridging the Gap: New opportunities for 16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training, London: The Stationery Office. executive summary

Watts, A. G. ‘Career guidance and social exclusion: a cautionary tale’, British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 29 (2), May 2001. Edited version: http://www.nya.org.uk/connex-TFC-career-guide.htm


© Mark K. Smith First published February 2000