17/09/2013 09:21 BST | Updated 16/11/2013 05:12 GMT

Online Careers Guidance Needs the Human Touch

Hardly a week goes by without further evidence demonstrating the deleterious effect of the Government's policies on careers advice and guidance for young people. Recently Barnado's excellent report Helping the inbetweeners: Ensuring careers advice improves the options for all young people found that it was not necessarily the most vulnerable - those at the bottom of the attainment profile, or Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) - who were worst affected, but 'instead it appears to be the cohort of young people just above them who are most at risk of receiving poor careers guidance which in turn prevents them achieving their ambitions.'

The researchers also criticised the Government's over-reliance on online resources through its National Careers Service and Plotr websites, which revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of how young people use the internet, and thus how to reach them with the information they need. In fact, not a single young person interviewed by Barnado's had even heard of either website, and only a handful said they would search for careers advice online. This is an important reminder that while this generation may be 'digital natives', most of their use of the internet revolves around social media and they often lack the skills to navigate careers advice websites without adult support. The report concludes that helpful though web and phone-based services can be, 'they can never truly replace the advice and guidance elements that are present in face-to-face interaction'. And so we find ourselves stuck back in the careers guidance cul de sac of 'online inadequate, face-to-face unaffordable'. Yet if we are going to improve matters for the 'inbetweeners' or indeed any young people, it is a circle we have to square.

The charity I run, Brightside, supports young people in their education and career choices by linking them with a trained online mentor, underpinned by an information website We have just commissioned a full independent evaluation of our work and the researchers from the International Centre for Guidance Studies at the University of Derby have drawn a conclusion which I think offers us a new way forward.

Their evaluation suggests that 'perhaps it is not the format of communication (online or face-to-face) that makes the difference, but rather whether a real relationship with another human being forms a core part of the support offered.' Indeed, one young person interviewed about their experiences of online mentoring claimed it was 'much more helpful than talking to careers guidance or family and friends', and 61% said it had helped them make important decisions about their future. In other words, it doesn't necessarily matter whether they're sat on the other side of a room or the other side of a computer screen, so long as young people know their questions are being answered by someone with their best interests at heart. This is a crucial point, and indeed supports Barnado's' assertion that 'for careers guidance to be taken seriously by young people it needs to come from a trusted and authoritative source that they know.'

Young people conceive of the internet more as an extension of their social circle than an extension of the school library, and the qualities they seek in the most valuable relationships they form are the same both on and offline: trust, understanding and the sense that someone will be there for them over time. These are things a call-back from the National Careers Service helpline, an undirected trawl through a complex careers website, or a one-off meeting with a careers adviser simply cannot provide, yet which a mentor properly trained in both the necessary skills for online communication and the emotional and practical advice and support a young person needs can provide as effectively as a face-to-face mentor, with the added bonus that young people can get answers to their questions much more quickly without having to wait to arrange a meeting.

So we need to create services for young people that are in tune with the way they use technology and yet preserve the one-to-one, personalised and sustained nature of good advice and guidance, but what would such a service look like? It would combine repeated access to the expertise of a career guidance professional with the advice of a mentor. It would be both focused - concentrating the expertise on the students who need the most support - and broad ranging - providing a mentor for every student who wants one. It would be a personalised service yet ultimately flexible, freed from geographical and time constraints. It could be national in coverage, integrated into face-to-face, on-the-ground services where they exist and crucially, whilst by no means completely free to implement, the cost savings of utilising existing technology in comparison with any other options would be enormous. With some innovative thinking, and a willingness to harness the best of online in a way that really works for young people, we could crack this critical problem. If the Government's willing to listen there are lots of us in the Third Sector who are very willing to help find the solution.