Is the Connexions service losing some momentum?

Progress in the development of the Connexions was always meant to be gradual. The full service will not be implemented in all areas until 2003 - depending on the level of preparedness and available resources. Partnerships in all 47 local LSC areas only submitted their initial plans in June and the 14 pilots launched in Spring 2000 have not yet fully yielded all their useable evidence. And after the first flushes of enthusiasm comes the hard detailed slog.

With a highly devolved delivery structure, the national drive requires vision, commitment and determination. That's why Anne Weinstock - with her unimpeachable track record in working with disadvantaged youth - was appointed to lead the strategy.

But the success of Connexions is also contingent on three sets of changes that extend well beyond what is commonly thought of as the "Connexions Service":

These are significant conditions. And on these foundations, the service aims to offer a "coherent advice, support and guidance service" to young people - but without explicitly giving any single agency the lead role. The Government has chosen a model that is trickier to accomplish in the short term - but potentially far more rewarding in the long term. Partnerships have been formed that draw together all existing services in the public, private, voluntary and community sectors. In practice, this means attempting to combine careers, youth and education welfare services. Not an easy task.

The perceived slackening of pace is also due to problems emerging from the different institutional cultures that are now in play. Whilst the Careers Services generally can adjust to their new mission, some are hindered by their recent past. The last Government forced privatisation on Careers Services and drove them to deliver on highly mechanistic performance targets. Organisational agility and sheer survival instinct means they are extremely keen to deliver Connexions and are de-facto the lead agencies.

Meanwhile, youth services - even in the statutory sector - are adopting a cautious approach that reflects their essentially secondary role in this process. Some of this reticence is pragmatic where, for example, the delivery arrangements are not very suitable. But some of it is ideological resistance. Many youth services disagree with the predominant role of "individual guidance" when other developmental methodologies are more commonplace forms of practice. This is reflected in the widespread hostility to Connexions establishing a new "personal adviser" profession. Indeed many staff in youth and careers services are simply quite hostile to the formal learning routes that inevitably flow from an individual guidance approach. Those who prefer youth work to be "open" and "developmental" resist the idea of an established curriculum and are ambivalent about standards being set. They think that individual guidance is excessively prescriptive and some even disagree with any significant emphasis on labour market attachment.

This puts its finger on the Connexions strategy's weakest point. What exactly is its ultimate purpose? The Government has not spelled out a sufficiently clear vision. Its goals are simply to reform existing services, ensuring they are delivered in a less piecemeal fashion and target the hardest to help.

This is of course admirable. But the Government is vague about the reasons why. They want to help form "rounded individuals" and give young people "a good start in life". Ultimately they say that young people should be offered chances to "develop their horizons both socially and in terms of educational and economic expectation and opportunity".

But they should really say what they mean. Young people need to effectively bridge the gap between school and work and to leave the educational system with the capacity to work and earn an independent living. Unless Government explicitly says this, then the diverse organisational cultures of educational institutions, youth and careers services will stamp their own often contradictory intrerpretations on the Connexions service.

Ultimately, Connexions must ensure that all young people get an equal chance to enter the labour market and become economically self-sufficient. Unless that is said clearly, much of the discussion will simply be well-intentioned waffle. In the field, a highly devolved and incremental roll-out will then be in danger of meandering without a clear defining purpose.