Colleges are key to closing employment gaps for young people with learning disabilities

Marking National Inclusion Week, the leaders of the Internship Works consortium urge providers to open their doors to supported internships

Marking National Inclusion Week, the leaders of the Internship Works consortium urge providers to open their doors to supported internships

30 Sep 2023, 5:00

This past decade has seen great strides towards genuine inclusion in education and employment for people with disabilities. National Inclusion Week celebrates its eleventh year this month, the Disability Confident scheme launched in 2016 has seen over 18,000 employers sign up, and the number of people with a disability who receive high qualifications increases every year. But when it comes to young people with a learning disability, how close are we to closing the inclusion gap?

While the employment rate for disabled people remains low at 53%, compared to 81% for non-disabled peers, the situation is a lot more dire for those with a learning disability or who are autistic. Employment outcomes for people with learning disabilities have declined from 5.6% in 2021 to 4.8% in 2023, even as that same period saw the highest number of job vacancies in the country.

Increasing numbers of educators and employers are now embracing the social model of disability and know inclusivity brings enormous benefits for disabled and non-disabled people alike. And yet, young people with SEND who want to finish their education, find their feet and earn a living wage face enormous challenges.

The partners in our consortium, Internships Work, have helped thousands of young people into work through supported employment schemes. We know that for young people with SEND the journey to fulfilling employment starts in education. Colleges are agents of change. By helping students access supported internships and other employment pathways, they are offering young people a chance to gain lifelong skills and to be ambitious about their future.

Supported internships are not new. Introduced in 2013, they have a proven track record of success, consistently driving change for young people with additional needs. Stories like Toseef’s are the rule, not the exception, for supported interns. On average, 70 per cent of supported interns in our partnership get a full-time, paid job upon completion. Research shows that supported employment programmes consistently achieve better outcomes for young people.

High-quality support is available to colleges

When Internships Work was launched in 2022, commissioned by the DfE, the programme aimed to double the number of supported interns by 2025, with 4500 young people benefiting annually – transforming their lives and defying societal assumptions. We are on track to deliver that goal, but we cannot do it without the support and involvement of our education partners.

Colleges and schools are pivotal in driving inclusion for young people with SEND and setting them up for success. They can and must offer young people who come through their doors not only qualifications but the skills to raise their ambitions and succeed in life. The key now is to make sure that support and opportunity follow every young person as they leave college and step into their future. With local authorities, employers, mentorship schemes and charities, we need to work together to make supported internships work.

For busy colleges, getting involved in supported employment can feel overwhelming: it is a responsibility and might involve additional administrative pressures. In reality, high-quality consistent support is available to guide colleges in making the process work seamlessly for them. We can offer efficient tools and support fostering partnerships that will enable colleges to build sustainable transition to employment programmes.

In return, colleges that provide supported internships can benefit from enhancing their reputation, attracting funders’ interest and creating enormous positive impact for their communities.

We are asking colleges to open their doors to supported internship programmes. Embrace the resources and support available, collaborate with their local SEND employment forums, and together, let’s shape a future where every young person’s potential is recognised and fulfilled. Join us in creating a world where diversity and inclusion are not just aspirations, but employment pathways for all.

Five practical tools for engaging in supported internships:

  1. Access the college information page at Internships Works, a 360-degree employment support package for education providers.
  2. Sign up for job coach training to equip your staff with the skills to guide students toward successful careers.
  3. Connect with local SEND employment forums to collaborate with stakeholders to drive lasting change.
  4. Engage with Internships Work’s regional leads to unlock the potential of supported internships for young people with learning disabilities.
  5. Become a peer reviewer for the Supported Internships Quality Assurance Framework (SIQAF) to play an active role in elevating the quality of supported internships.

This article was also co-authored by Claire Cookson, CEO, DFN Project SEARCH

NDTi, BASE and DFN Project SEARCH are partners in the Internships Work consortium, commissioned by the Department for Education to double the current supported internship provision in England.

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