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Access issues in adult vocational guidance and counselling for people at risk of

social exclusion: perspectives from two qualitative research projects

Pamela Clayton and Paul McGill

Published in Journal of Access and Credit Studies 2000

This paper is based on two research projects: one into the long-term outcomes of

adult return to learning and the other on access issues in adult vocational

guidance for people at risk of social exclusion. The latter have the most to lose

from choosing learning which is inappropriate to their current needs and situation,

so guidance is particularly important for them. The problem is that those who

could benefit most from guidance are the least likely to access it. We summarise

some of the structural barriers to access and suggest some strategies for

overcoming them.


The focus here is on learning for the ultimate aim of gaining employment or
improving employment status, rather than learning for its own sake, and this is
reflected in the term ‘vocational’ guidance, which is wider than educational
guidance. People at risk of social exclusion need more than information and advice
on which course to take, more even than an hour-long guidance interview. Hence
the role of vocational guidance ideally includes the following:
• providing information;
• helping people interpret information and make choices;
• helping people find out their wants and needs and work out various ways of
meeting them;
• enhancing people’s ability to choose opportunities appropriate to their personal,
educational and vocational development;
• providing learning experiences to help people gain the skills needed to make
decisions and transitions, such as courses on interview techniques;
• confidence-raising and the development of self-esteem;
• (self-)assessment of prior (experiential) learning (AP(E)L);
• supporting people in dealing with educational institutions or employment
agencies, in a way that encourages them to do it by themselves another time;
• advocating (directly negotiating with institutions or agencies on behalf on a
• networking (establishing links, formal/informal and keeping regular contact
with a range of agencies and individuals, including learning providers); and
• gathering information on the unmet or ill-met needs of users, so that provision
can be adapted or developed (Adult Educational Guidance Initiative Scotland
[AEGIS], 1996).
There have been many studies on access to learning for adults (for
example, Bridge & Salt, 1992; Crain, 1995; Davies, 1990; Hamilton, 1994;
Oglesby, 1991) but fewer on access to vocational (as opposed to educational)
guidance and counselling (for some of the studies on access issues in educational
guidance, see Blair et al, 1998, Blair & Tett, 1998). In many ways the barriers to
access both to learning and to guidance are very similar, but there is one major
difference: even where there are many learning opportunities for adults the
provision of guidance is in general very sparse and of variable quality. This paucity
of provision is, therefore, the greatest barrier to access; yet how can the maze of
education and training courses - and the substantial barriers to participation therein
throughout the EU (McGivney, 1992) - be negotiated without, at the very least,
information and advice, with the option of guidance for those who need it? (Where
the word ‘guidance’ is used in this article, the full meaning of ‘vocational guidance
and counselling for adults in search of education, training and/or employment’
should be inferred.)
Participation in learning is generally found to be weakest in certain groups
rather than randomly distributed (McGivney, 1993). It is as true for guidance as it
is for adult learning that those most in need, such as the poor, the ill-qualified, lone
parents, those in remote or economically declining areas, the homeless, people with
physical, psychological and learning disabilities and women (in particular) from
some ethnic minorities, are the least likely to access it. Courtney observed in 1981
that participation is influenced by a mixture of socio-demographic variables and
individuals’ perception of their value in the social system (McGivney, 1993).
Hence important barriers are lack of knowledge, of confidence, of self-esteem and
of hope: ‘The adults who are often the most difficult to meet and, therefore, support
in the community are frequently those who cannot see a way forward’ (Blackwell,
1998:4, my italics). This is not merely a matter of personal disposition: these
barriers arise out of the very situation of some groups, notably those most at risk of
social exclusion. This has been recognised in recent policy documents such as
Opportunity Scotland (The Scottish Office, 1998).
It seems obvious that where people from these groups do access learning,
they have the most to lose from ill-informed choice. It is, therefore, crucially
important that they should be able to access good-quality impartial advice and
guidance which can steer them towards learning provision that is not only

appropriate to their goals but also to their circumstances. Inappropriate provision
includes that which is pervaded by a middle-class, ethnocentric ethos; where
timetabling and lack of child-care provision do not recognise the needs of carers
(the great majority of whom are women); where courses are located far from home,
fees are high, disabled access is poor and where there are few support structures
(McGivney, 1993, pp 18-20).

The findings in this article arise principally from two research projects. The first is
the Long-Term Outcomes Project (LOP) funded by the Scottish Higher Education
Funding Council (SHEFC) and conducted in Scotland between 1993 and 1997 and
consists of qualitative research on the long-term social, economic and personal
outcomes for people who returned to learning in Scotland. 105 life history
interviews were conducted with adults who had returned five or six years
previously to a variety of types of learning, in schools, colleges, universities (both
adult education departments and full-time courses in faculties), community centres
and the workplace. (The type of learning referred to in this article is primarily post-
compulsory organised learning and the focus is on the United Kingdom.)
The second is the Survey and Analysis, Access to Vocational Guidance
and Counselling for People at Risk of Social Exclusion (AVG). This is a survey of
social exclusion and the provision of lifelong learning and vocational guidance,
funded by the LEONARDO da VINCI programme of the European Commission,
the University of Glasgow, the University of Helsinki, University College Cork
and the Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso of Milan. The Czech Committee for
Scientific Management, Prague, also participated with funding obtained from the
LEONARDO da VINCI unit of the Czech Republic. The perspective underlying
the AVG research is that people rarely exclude themselves but are excluded by
social processes. To the extent that a deficiency model of adult vocational guidance
is presented, this similarly implies deficiency in the system, not in the people who
are ill served by it. The focus is on individuals and how their life chances can be
improved through changes in the guidance system.
Free guidance services are, quite logically, most likely to be found in areas
of deprivation. This means that some people who can be deemed at risk of social
exclusion do have access to the guidance that could help them improve their labour
market position; but many, probably the majority, live outside areas where
guidance services exist. Furthermore, even where such services are available, those
who most need them are the least likely to use them, as the AVG research
confirmed. Thus, strategies to enhance access form the focus of the AVG study.
The methodology adopted in this study consisted of a statistical survey of social
exclusion together with reviews of lifelong learning opportunities and the provision
of adult vocational guidance and counselling. A selection of case studies was made
of guidance services targetting various groups at risk of social exclusion and using
good practice in enhancing access to their services. Interviews were held with a
small number of users of some of these services and also with a range of experts on
guidance and social exclusion. In the United Kingdom these included, among
others, Professor Tony Watts of the Careers Research and Advisory Centre
(CRAC), Dr Veronica McGivney of the National Institute for Adult and
Continuing Education (NIACE), Mr Simon Wood representing the Foyers for
young homeless people and Robin Tennant of the Poverty Alliance; and with
representatives of the social partners, that is, the Confederation of British Industry,
Scotland, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Scottish Chambers of
Commerce. A survey of the literature was also carried out.

The LOP survey found no-one in the sample of 105 who had not enjoyed the
learning experience and nearly all felt they had received personal benefits from
their return far beyond their initial expectations. For example, nearly everyone
(101) reported a rise in self-confidence and self-esteem in addition to feeling that
they had gained knowledge.
Not only is it hard, however, for some groups to access learning, as the
literature cited above shows, it is also difficult for many people to find out what
kind of learning is in fact appropriate, personally relevant, accessible and efficient
in terms of an individual’s goals. The LOP survey found several people whose
return to education had done nothing for their career prospects, including three who
had taken degrees. One young woman, a graduate on a work scheme, said:
‘For all it was wonderful, when I went out to get a job ... I had actually
come from a job into full-time education, come out to get another one ...
it’s maybe through the choice of subjects I took, which was social sciences.
They weren’t reflecting, you know, of a real job.’
Another woman, who had had great hopes of gaining employment as a result of
taking an Open University Community Education course, felt that having done a
course with no recognised qualification was a drawback:
‘I went for a job to be a playgroup leader ... and you’d have thought, well,
with the experience of doing these courses in that age group - it didnae
matter, they were disregarded.’
One of the men, who had abandoned a degree course for financial reasons, felt that
in any case he had chosen the wrong subject.
The AVG survey interviews with guidance clients found some
dissatisfaction with both school careers services and with the Employment Service.
None of the young jobseekers interviewed at Gorbals Initiative, a local
development company in Glasgow, felt they had had any help with accessing
employment or education before, even though they had been registered with the
ES. One, aged 16, claimed to have had no contact with his school Careers Service.
The oldest of the group, aged 20, had found he was too old to be eligible to use the
local authority Careers Office. Similarly long-term unemployed men interviewed at
the Wise Group (a large intermediate labour market organisation) felt that they had
received no real help before.
Inappropriate choices or inefficient progression routes can also delay
career entry and development. The experience of one young man in the AVG
survey provides an illuminating example. On leaving school with modest Highers
(the Scottish school-leaving examinations taken from the age of 17) he had not
been admitted to his chosen university course, sociology, and took the advice of his
careers teacher to take a lower-level course in another subject. He had done badly
on this course and also on a subsequent one, not because he lacked ability but
because they did not suit him. He then discovered that he could take a Higher
National Diploma (HND) in social studies and enter the university by that route - a
piece of information that might have saved him three years he considers wasted
and which diminished his self-confidence. A LOP interviewee, who had left school
at 15 without qualifications and later became a qualified social worker, observed
that her career path had not been the most efficient: ‘Doing it in a planned way
might be better. Possibly taking careers advice as I kind of muddled through for a
few years before getting on track.’ Although she has attained the career she

wanted, her late entry leaves her in a vulnerable position when redundancies are
made. There is strong evidence that this kind of ‘floundering job movement’ can be
diminished by appropriate guidance (Killeen et al., 1992).
From one point of view, all learning is ‘good’ because, as the LOP survey
showed, the process itself can be life-enhancing. The official view of the
Confederation for British Industry (CBI) also supports learning for ‘employability’.
According to Ron Gow, Director of the CBI (Scotland), interviewed in August
1998 for the AVG Survey (and see also CBI [1998]), specific training can be given
by the employer. Employees do not necessarily need formal qualifications but they
are increasingly required to arrive with, inter alia:
• literacy and numeracy
• computer skills;
• the ability to work with others;
• self-esteem, which enables them to cope with change;
• the confidence and ability to look for ways of solving problems;
• a positive attitude towards learning, so that they will build on rather than rest on
existing qualifications or learning; and
• learning skills: these are seen as even more important than the subjects studied
or qualifications gained
Despite the CBI position, however, it is generally the case that people with
qualifications are more likely to have fulfilling and relatively secure employment
than those without. In particular, for people trying to break out of poverty and
exclusion, it is important to make decisions on what kind of learning will best and
most quickly improve labour market chances. Such learning usually involves a
substantial investment in time and money. Even where courses are provided free of
charge, there is an opportunity cost to the student: time spent studying is time
which is not available for generating income, relaxing or spending time with the
family (Park, 1994). There are also potential personal risks in learning, ranging
from the challenge to firmly-held ideas to failure to complete the course or to
obtain credit. Worst of all, investment in learning may not pay off in career terms,
even if it proves an enjoyable experience in itself.
The AVG research team concluded that lifelong learning requires support
from an effective strategy for lifelong impartial vocational guidance and
counselling. In particular, this can form a valuable, even essential, link between
socially excluded individuals and lifelong learning. The search for appropriate
qualifications is far from straightforward, and comparability is opaque not only
transnationally but even nationally (Parkes, 1998). The situation is not helped by
roughly parallel paths through academic, technical and vocational qualifications,
which are explained by the Edexcel Foundation (1998), but are not widely known
to would-be learners. An adult vocational/educational guidance service which is
sensitive to the needs of inadequately-educated adults can help to facilitate their
entry into appropriate levels of education with clearly-marked progression paths
(given that such courses and funding are available).
In addition, job-seeking for those isolated from informal labour market
networks has become a much more sophisticated process than formerly and the
large pool of unemployed allows employers to demand ever-increasing types and
ranges of skills, as suggested by the CBI interview cited above. It appears that
measures taken by state employment services to help the registered unemployed to
find jobs or become ‘job-ready’ are widely regarded as inadequate, certainly by

their users. Vocational guidance for adults, on the other hand, can potentially be
beneficial in acting as a link between the requirements of employers and the skills,
including personal and social skills, of individuals, particularly where
complementary services such as assertiveness courses are offered. A proactive
service can constitute the first link between disadvantaged individuals and learning
that is both appropriate to their needs and interests and in demand in the labour
market. The counselling component of guidance, which involves a longer-term
intervention than the single guidance interview, is particularly important and
effective for adults who lack confidence in their abilities and experiential learning
either to (re)enter the labour market or to change the types of work they are
currently doing but with which they are dissatisfied.
The AVG research concluded that vocational/educational guidance and
counselling provides not merely a useful but an essential link between individuals
and lifelong learning. Initiatives such as Learning Direct and the University for
Industry (The Scottish Office, 1998) are useful additions to the range of
information available on learning opportunities; but vocational guidance is not
merely the provision of information and advice, although these are important; it is
not only that its principles are client-centredness, confidentiality and impartiality;
the heart of guidance is
‘providing learning experiences to enable clients to acquire knowledge,
skills and competencies related to making personal, educational and career
decisions’ (Clark 1999, pp 10-12).
Good-quality provision both of learning and of guidance are therefore
essential. Studies of access to learning and access to vocational guidance are not
only linked but can learn much each from the other. Unfortunately, the AVG
research found that, however weak the provision of learning may be in some areas,
the provision of guidance is almost invariably inadequate to meet the needs of
potential clients (see also Beaumont 1999; Chisholm 1997). Furthermore, even
where it exists, as one study found, ‘it became apparent that our customers felt our
services were not easy to access and that many more people would benefit if only
they were aware of the provision’ (Jones 1999, p. 13). Nevertheless provision is
accessible in some areas, for example in the high street guidance shops in semi-
rural South-East Cheshire, small towns like Blantyre, and poorer districts of cities
such as Glasgow and London; and there are many services demonstrating good
practice in enhancing access, as exemplified below.
Some examples of groups with particular access difficulties, targeted by
services found by the researchers, are given below. This is not, however, an
exhaustive list, nor is it an attempt to stereotype individuals according to structural
factors. Nevertheless, although ‘people (within groups) still vary considerably (...)
as a general rule, the problems they face are fairly comparable’ (Chiousse &
Werquin 1999, p. 19).


Although rural areas (here defined as areas with low population density and poor
access to urban areas, either because of distance or lack of affordable transport),
especially those within commuting distance of cities, are often affluent ones,
national studies show that 25% of rural families live on or below the poverty line.
Living in generally affluent areas means there is a lack of support services, public
transport and childcare - and if guidance provision in urban areas is patchy, it is
almost non-existent in rural ones, though very necessary (Gonzalez, 1995; Payne,
1998). All of the member states participating in the European study (and most
which are not), however industrialised and urbanised, have rural populations
which, though increasingly a minority of the total population, have particular
difficulties of access and need special provision. There is frequently a scarcity of
jobs in rural areas, and options other than traditional employment (for example,
self-employment, cooperatives, teleworking) require identification (Murphy, 1996).
People with physical, psychological or learning disabilities are often the focus of
special measures, but in the United Kingdom, ‘for the person, their continuity of
experience is not matched by continuity of service provision’ (Peter Davies,
REHAB Scotland, interview 1998). Those with disabilities should be registered
and therefore receive guidance and support, but in practice this does not always
happen. For example, General Practitioners are not trained to deal with disabled
patients’ needs apart from the medical. The problems of access to vocational
guidance and counselling are sometimes compounded by stereotyped notions of the
capabilities of disabled people. People with moderate learning disabilities have in
the past been treated as uninterested or unintelligent rather than as needing special
Lone mothers (and lone fathers) are in a particularly difficult position where
childcare is scarce and expensive, as are those responsible for eldercare (DfEE,
1996; National Council for One Parent Families, 1995). Accessing vocational
guidance is therefore difficult for carers.
People who are homeless or in housing need often suffer other problems such as
alcoholism, drug abuse, mental health problems, family/marital breakdown, lack of
qualifications, disability, age (including those who are too young to receive state
benefits), criminal record, past physical or sexual abuse, and literacy/numeracy
problems. Some may require ESOL support. Some have never had a job or even a
job interview. Many have no idea where to start. There is a general mistrust of the
authorities, including social workers and guidance services, and even where
individuals decide to seek help, it is often difficult for them to know where to start.
Ex-offenders have particular difficulties in accessing employment. Not only do
they carry the stigma of a prison record and the resulting suspicion from potential
employers, but they often lack basic skills such as literacy and numeracy, may have
a history of drug dependency and perhaps have never had a job in the formal
economy. In the United Kingdom a disproportionate number of prisoners are black,
adding to their disadvantaged status. Furthermore ex-offenders are likely to be
suspicious of officialdom, mistrustful and lacking in belief that they can ever
succeed in the formal labour market. It is not uncommon for released prisoners to
become homeless.
There is a growing refugee population in several countries in Europe. The biggest
barriers to accessing any services are normally language, translation and
interpretation; but a major problem is access to information on what services are
available (Redbridge Refugee Forum, 1997). In particular, since few source
countries have vocational guidance and counselling systems, refugees do not
usually know that such help exists. One survey of refugees and asylum-seekers
found widespread dissatisfaction with the Employment Service in the United

Kingdom: either staff believed they were not eligible to use Job Centre facilities or
they gave a service which did not meet their needs (Pile, 1997:15). When one Job
Centre was asked if a group of refugees on an ESOL (English as a second or other
language) course could pay a visit:
the initial response was one of polite incomprehension: the person I spoke to
considered their procedures so straightforward and self-explanatory that she
could not see the purpose of a visit ... (but) there were no bilingual staff and
no literature available in any language other than English (Bellis & Awar,


The AVG research found that the provision of vocational guidance, although very
good in some areas, such as the Piemonte area of Italy and impoverished districts
of Glasgow, London and Bradford, is at best patchy and at worse non-existent. The
sine qua non for access, then, is the existence of provision which, moreover, meets
the AEGIS criteria cited above: good-quality information, advice and guidance;
availability of jobsearch courses, confidence-raising sessions and AP(E)L;
advocacy; ongoing support; networking; and service development and
improvement. The term ‘vocational guidance’ is increasingly referred to in official
publications and it is to be hoped that reality (and sensible funding, that is core
funding rather than year-on-year project funding, usually from a multiplicity of
funders with different accounting periods, procedures and criteria) will soon follow
rhetoric. Here, however, the focus is on what existing guidance services could do to
enhance access. Although the suggestions given below are drawn from the AVG
survey, they may also be helpful to learning providers.
Although return to learning is sometimes inhibited by the prior educational
experience that many people have had of it, at least people have some idea of what
education is. Vocational guidance, on the other hand, suffers from a very low
profile and what it actually does is little understood. Services need, therefore, to
undertake two kinds of publicity: generic, which informs people of what guidance
is; and directed, which speaks directly to its target group in a language (whether
register or national) and style which is accessible without being patronising.
Posters should have pictures, use appropriate register and community languages,
and give service information such as the existence of free crèche facilities.
Guidance on a lifelong basis requires the involvement of many agencies (Watts et
al., 1996). Partnerships of many kinds are helpful in enhancing access and the most
effective services found by the AVG researchers tended to have collaborative
relationships with a range of relevant organisations. These include adult guidance
networks, which not only facilitate referrals but can carry out joint marketing, put
in joint bids for project funds, define quality standards; share and exchange skills;
and integrate services and area funding. Other useful partners for guidance services
are local learning providers, to facilitate a two-way exchange of information about
the supply of and demand for learning opportunities; local employers, employers’
organisations and local economic regeneration bodies, to obtain up-to-date labour
market information, work placements and speedy notification of vacancies; trade
unions (Ford and Watts, 1998); central and local government agencies, public
libraries, ethnic minority and other community organisations (Blackwell, 1998).

Information need not be confined to guidance service premises but can be made
available wherever people go. The AVG researchers found examples where the full
guidance service is offered on an outreach basis, either in fixed premises or in
mobile form such as a guidance bus; in other cases, outreach workers for other
services may cooperate in helping clients to access a guidance service. A key
feature is the use of familiar, non-threatening locations (Jackson & Haughton,
1998; Watson & Tyers, 1998). One interesting initiative is the use of ‘barefoot
guidance workers’ (Tuckett, 1997), where local people as well as the personnel of
various agencies are given basic guidance training.
The AVG research discovered some tension between guidance on an outreach basis
and guidance in a central service. Some practitioners believe that it is useful to
offer only initial advice and guidance on an outreach basis. There are often limits
to what can be provided outside a well-equipped central service which may have,
for example, a careers library, an open learning centre, jobsearch facilities on the
Web and so on. It is true that technology can assist here, for example, laptop
computers with learning opportunities databases; but a further advantage of entry
into a central service, in the opinion of at least two service managers (South-East
Cheshire Local Enterprise Council and Careers Bradford Ltd) can help prepare
people with negative experiences of bureaucracy (and sometimes fear of leaving
their local area) to move towards mainstream education and employment.
Perhaps the most important finding of the AVG research is that, whether the
service is delivered centrally or on an outreach basis, it must be supportive of
people who are often nervous of unfamiliar and official environments. First
impressions of the service are particularly important. Access to the building should
be considered in both its physical and psychological aspects. It helps if the building
is ‘friendly’ in outward appearance, in that its purpose and appropriateness are
clear and it is easily apparent from the outset how to negotiate entry to and use of
the premises - and how to get out again! It is not always possible to create such an
exterior, but, however unpromising the approach to the building, the interior should
be bright and welcoming, with clear signposting. It is helpful if the reception area
is placed as far from the entrance as possible, to allow users to orient themselves or
simply to browse among the information that should be placed next to the entrance;
but wherever the reception area is, the receptionist (and indeed all members of
staff) should be both friendly and helpful. Where the first contact is by telephone,
or the service is a telephone helpline, the same applies; and there should be an
ansaphone service for out-of-hours callers to request appointments. Waiting times
for appointments should be as short as possible and one-to-one interviews in
private should be offered once the ‘access stage’ has been crossed. (‘Offered’ but
not insisted on - one refugee adviser from Futures Careers Guidance, speaking at
the Achieving Potential conference held by the University of East London in June
1999, found that many of her clients, traumatised by interrogation and even torture,
preferred an interview in an open space.) Simple things like the offer of tea or
coffee while waiting can be encouraging. There should be a clearly marked area
where smoking is allowed. One model is that of the ‘shop’ rather than the ‘office’.
One careers company in Wales found a significant increase in customers once they
re-designed their high street offices as guidance shops (Jones 1999).

The central argument of this paper is that an important aspect of social exclusion is
lack of access to fulfilling employment and to the education that is required for
career entry and progression. We would also argue that learning can be a joy in
itself and can enhance the lives of people without the wish or the possibility of
entering the labour market, for example, because of family ties, illness,
geographical constraints and so on, not because of lack of aptitude or skills.
None of these suggestions for enhancing access is a panacea. Information can be
delivered to people’s very homes but they cannot be forced to read it or to act on it.
Partnerships with non-guidance services can be risky and the use of members of
target groups can be exploitative. Some outreach sites are located in unsuitable and
alienating premises. Not everybody can access a central service; and creating a
supportive environment will not prepare the user for the more challenging aspects
of the guidance process (Clayton, 1999). Nevertheless, the AVG research team
believes that services must learn to be proactive (and be given the resources) in
enhancing access to guidance, taking into account the specificities of their target
group. As the research suggests, much is at stake in the form of missed
opportunities, lost time, misdirected efforts to improve life chances and a further
dimunition of confidence, most of all for people who are already disadvantaged.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of our
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