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From time to time I chair external conferences. The RSA gets a fee for my time and I quite enjoy the challenge of making events engaging, but the best thing about chairing is the chance to get a snapshot of  issues affecting a particular slice of human activity. So it was yesterday when I oversaw an event on the careers service.

It was impressive that anyone in the sector could even drag themselves out of bed, let alone discuss their future. Over recent years, the careers service has been reorganised, renamed (several times), centralised, devolved, tendered out and brought back in. It is now facing deep cuts, and a Department of Education which seems sublimely indifferent to whether schools provide impartial information, advice and guidance (IAG).

In the midst of all this the Government – in the form of BIS Minister of State John Hayes - has promised something many in the sector have long craved; a new all-age careers service. But already the deadlines for a Government policy statement about the new service are slipping and it is not surprising many careers professionals find it hard to be hopeful. Yet good IAG is critically important to a whole range of social (Big Society) goals, from increasing productivity to reducing unemployment, from greater social mobility to enhancing well-being. The evidence base is not as strong as it could be, but generally points to good IAG being powerful and cost effective.

At the conference itself there was an interesting contrast between those who focus on the traditional core activity of face to face careers advice and the growing on-line sector. Whilst everyone agreed that a good service would ‘blend’ one to one support with on-line tools there was a clear culture divide with the traditionalists sceptical of the claims of the on-line innovators who were in turn aggrieved that so little of the budget for careers still goes into web-based services. An interesting moment came when I asked the founders of three impressive on-line services, Horsesmouth, icould and notgoingtouni (all of whom are confident about their social business despite a lack of certainly about longer term financial viability) what were their total combined annual revenue costs. The answer was less than £500k, which represents about a tenth of a percent of total public expenditure on careers-related provision.

I left the conference with a number of strong impressions and a policy idea. First, there is great scope for the emergence of some really powerful, personalised on-line services which can provide valuable careers advice for people throughout life at a fraction of the cost of face to face services (there was an interesting presentation on what may be possible from a team which has been led by FRSA David Dickenson). Second, crucial to ‘blending services’ are systems of triaging which ensure that people who need deeper and more personal support can get it on the telephone, through video conferencing and face to face. Third, pressure must be appplied to the Department of Education to take independent careers advice seriously. The Departmental view is that it should be left to schools whether and how much provision they make, but this is naivety fringing into negligence.  The result in many schools is very low level provision with a strong bias towards telling pupils they should stay on into their current school sixth form even when there are much better FE or apprentice options outside.

In terms of a policy proposal, the way I would ensure an independent service, create a market which can  drive innovation, and maximise social impact would simply be to give all young people from disadvantaged backgrounds a voucher of, say, £150 which they can spend on line with any accredited provider. This way they can choose anything from cheap sources of information and on-line advice through to more expensive face to face sessions.

This would be a shock to the system but good providers  - from individual advisors to web services - would survive and thrive. Schools and colleges could try to persuade pupils to bundle up vouchers to buy blocks of local services, but the power should lie with the consumer. A voucher system might also encourage better-off parents and young people to invest their own money in good advice. After all middle class people make unwise careers choices too, how else to explain why I am not managing West Bromwich Albion?

It should be far too late to influence the all-age careers policy, which is dues to emerge from BIS in the next few weeks, but if John Hayes' decision not to turn up yesterday and the rumours emerging from Whitehall are to be believed, policy formation is still at a fairly early stage. So why not throw one more idea into the mix?

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