A personal adviser is at the heart of an initiative that links services to help young people get back into education. Tony Tysome reports.
The cybercafé on Coventry's infamous Wood End estate is like an oasis in the heart of a concrete desert. It seems that about every fifth house in the neighbourhood is boarded up, there are very few shops and the last remaining pub has closed after it was burnt down by vandals for the second time.
A recent visit to the café by lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks was about more than popping in to quench his thirst with a cup of coffee. He was there to find out how the cafe is becoming the focal point for efforts to attract disaffected local youngsters who have dropped out of education back into learning.
Wood End has a large number of young people who fit into that category. More than 90 per cent of year-ten pupils are considered to be at risk of exclusion from school. Needless to say, the local crime rate is high.
The information technology facilities at the café are a key part of its attraction, with 91 per cent of the local population not having access to a working telephone. But managers at the café were interested to find out from Wicks how a government initiative, known as the Connexions Service, might enhance the work they are doing.
Wicks describes Connexions as "something more ambitious" than just a modernisation of the careers service. On the face of it, Connexions is designed to address one of the most important tasks set by the Learning and Skills Council for post-16 education and training - to turn more people on to lifelong learning. It should do that by linking a wide range of services that touch the lives of 13 to 19-year-olds, and particularly those individuals with socioeconomic disadvantages. Those services include education and training institutions, employment services, health agencies, youth justice and voluntary organisations.
But many people, including some of those involved in the activities Connexions is meant to link, are still baffled. Dave Goodfield, the cybercafé manager, says: "If the Connexions Service does what it is setting out to do, then it should help to channel work like ours into more productive outputs. The trouble is, I don't know if anyone is really sure what Connexions is all about. At the moment, when I talk to people about it, they all have a different idea of what it is meant to be doing. It's a vast area of restructuring."
Wicks is aware that there is some confusion. But he points out that the service has been in its pilot stage until now. The real test begins this month when it goes "live" in 16 Connexions partnership areas.
The clue to what the service will be trying to do lies in its name, he says. "It's about making connections between the services in the wider welfare state. Where a young person is into hard drugs, for instance, you have to be able to link them up to the drugs service before you can start talking to them about a career in the information technology industry," he says.
The backbone of the service will be an army of newly recruited personal advisers, who will be based in, or make regular visits to key institutions and organisations. Every school will have an adviser for at least one day a week, but advisers will also spend time in institutions such as the cybercafé.
Wicks explains: "The advisers are the ones who will coordinate it all. Research we have done shows that young people value the idea of having one person they can call upon.
"I think the main task we and the advisers face, given the different circumstances of young people, is to make sure we are sensitive to the needs of the individual. That is why it is fine for the child who is into IT to access advice in that way, but for the kid who might literally be on the streets there is a Connexions adviser who can help them."
As well as advisers, the service is to have a phone service for young people or their parents, giving advice on anything from a career in bakery to access to universities. From autumn, there will also be a Connexions smartcard that will be issued to young people who sign up for post-16 education and training. The card aims to reward participation by providing discounts for books, equipment and transport, through a loyalty points system, as well as giving free access to online careers advice and guidance.
Along with the advisers, the combined force of these services is designed to catch the attention of disaffected youngsters where institutions alone or an isolated helpline may have failed, Wicks says.
"We want to make sure that where the young person faces multiple problems, we can bring together a range of support, rather than just giving them a contact phone number. Your first port of call is your familiar institution such as a school. But when, as too often is the case, a young person reaches the age of 16 and is still struggling with literacy and numeracy, you do not have schools to pick that up. That is why the service has a major role to play post-16," he says.
Wicks is critical of the way that, in the past, the careers service failed to help many young people, even some of the most academically able, to choose the right career path. With more opportunities opening, such a service would be unable to cope with the demands of today's young people, he says.
"The world can look a bit complex to today's 13 to 19-year-olds. There are ever more choices for both academic and vocational study. The more academic child has to decide whether to go to university and which subject to study. How many of us got proper advice to make those choices?
"I think there are examples of good practice in the careers service. But I have to say that when I talk to many young people, it seems to have had little impact on their lives," he says.
Given the complexity of the world facing young people now, and the complexity of the Connexions mission, some confusion over the big picture is perhaps inevitable. Goodfield reflects: "It's a bit like Spaghetti Junction. If you look at it from the air, it's not easy to understand. But it is necessary to link up all those roads."