For many learners with special needs and/or disabilities (SEND), approaching the end of their full-time education is a daunting time. National outcomes for gaining employment are far lower for them than for people without learning disabilities, and they face many perceived (and indeed real) barriers to securing a paid job.
However, our experience shows that these young adults have huge potential to be successful members of a workforce – and of real value to employers and businesses. Our outcomes reflect this, as does being designated a SEND Centre of Excellence by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF).
This year, more than 80 per cent of learners on our supported internship programmes were given offers of employment – with destinations including supermarkets, a cinema, a football club, garden centre and Princess Royal University Hospital.
This remarkable success rate of getting learners with SEND into employment demonstrates just what’s possible with the right partnerships and support in place.
Vocational profiling is an essential step to successful employment for learners with SEND. Discovering where someone’s talents and interests lie enables the personalisation of their placement. The right progression pathways can then be developed and suitable placements identified.
Dedicated supported internship advisers work with our students to see what experience and skills they might already have, and help uncover their aspirations. To support this process, visual aids are used, if needed, and the student’s family are involved to ensure aims are realistic yet aspirational.
Once a learner’s vocational profile has been established, the next step is to support them to become work-ready and equipped with the skills needed for employment, including English and maths.
Internal work experience is a valuable starting point; we have a dedicated student-run restaurant, a horticulture polytunnel, a shop and a construction workshop. These facilities help students learn and practise skills such as handling money and customer service, building confidence and preparing them for a real-life working environment.
Travel training is vital. Many local authorities provide additional training to support the work done in colleges. It is a crucial part of many learners’ journey to employment.
Employers and partnerships
For colleges, finding supportive employers can be a challenge. Using a third party to broker some of these relationships can be useful.
For example, we have worked with Mencap for many years. The charity assists us in finding placements to suit our learners’ needs and aspirations.
The most successful placements are those where the employer is supported alongside the student – with an understanding that this might be a new and different undertaking for every party. Employing a young person with a learning disability helps create a rich culture of diversity and inclusivity.
Waitrose, Co-op, Aramark, Vue Cinemas and Crystal Palace Football Club are examples of excellent employers we work with, which provide successful placements and paid jobs for our learners.
In partnership with a local NHS Trust and our local authority, we recently piloted a supported internship programme for seven autistic learners. Six of these young people secured permanent paid employment in different areas of the hospital. This was a fantastic result, clearly demonstrating the positive impact of true collaborative working.
Sustaining long-term employment is crucial to their lives and those of their families. So, in partnership with Mencap, we ensure our learners are supported for up to six months upon leaving college and moving into work. This involves a dedicated mentor making regular visits to see the learner in their work environment, providing any support or advice that might be needed.
For example, one learner was struggling with stock rotation and sell-by dates in his role at a supermarket – but this was picked up and the support he received ensured his employment could continue successfully.
Learners with SEND are undoubtedly an untapped resource for businesses. With the right support and joined-up approach, many more people could access employment and the benefits of truly inclusive workforces could be realised.