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Teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds face going through the post-exams clearing process without crucial advice about securing a university place because of cuts to the Connexions service, experts warn.
Andy Gardner, of the Institute of Career Guidance, said he had serious concerns about what would happen to pupils who failed to get the results they needed for their first-choice degree course, amid a race for places in the year before tuition fees rise.
Jobs at Connexions, which helps 13- to 25-year-olds, have been slashed across the country. A survey by the public sector union Unison this year found almost all local authorities in England were planning cuts at careers services, with some – including East Sussex and Lewisham, in south London – closing completely. At least 8,000 advisers were due to lose their jobs.
The government is planning a new national careers service but it is not due to start operating until 2012.
Gardner, who helped to write recent guidance for prospective students applying to the Russell group of research-intensive universities, said teenagers from the poorest areas were likely to be hardest hit by a lack of face-to-face advice this year.
At schools where careers guidance is weak, and where specialist help will not be available during the results period in August, Connexions has been key to helping young people decide what to do, he said.
"The ICG is very worried about A-level results time," he told EducationGuardian. "It's really helpful if you can see someone who has seen you before and knows you and your school.
"Unfortunately it's often in the schools that have the most social deprivation where the advice is weakest, and that's going to be exacerbated by the destruction of Connexions."
The Russell group guidance, Informed Choices [pdf], acknowledged officially for the first time that the top universities favour traditional subjects at A-level, and warned students against taking too many "soft" subjects.
This month the Sutton Trust published research showing wide variations in the numbers getting into elite universities among schools with similar results. Gardner said in many cases it may be down to bad careers advice in schools, with pupils who aspired to Russell group institutions not being helped to pick subjects that would impress admissions tutors. Cuts to Connexions services would make the problem worse, he said.
"Connexions was really getting into talking to young people about the Informed Choices decision. Middle-class parents are picking up on it and telling their kids, but if it's a working-class kid in a provincial school there's every chance they might not pick up on that. It looks pretty bleak."