Why apprenticeships can be key to supporting learners with SEND into employment

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We need to better understand potential barriers if we are to attract more apprentices with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities (SEND), explains Suzanne Slater, Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at the educational charity and leader in vocational and technical learning NCFE.


When it comes to providing opportunities for learners with SEND to find jobs, as a country we’ve historically been very poor. For example, data released by the Office for National Statistics in 2021 showed that only 22% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment.


If we examine some of the reasons behind this, what’s clear is that there’s a fear among employers around SEND – particularly when it comes to supporting people in the workplace.


The National Autistic Society’s report – The Autism Employment Gap – highlighted that the majority (60%) of employers were worried about getting support for an autistic employee wrong, and the same proportion didn’t know where to go for help or advice about employing an autistic person.


These fears or concerns, even if unfounded, have led to inaction – which ultimately leaves learners with SEND missing out on all-important opportunities to thrive.
This is where I believe apprenticeships can really make a difference and, with the right guidance, employers can gain invaluable experience as well. It’s a chance to educate managers and colleagues and ensure their workplace is on the right path to becoming SEND-friendly.


If we look at the latest apprenticeship statistics, it’s a mixed picture. In 2021-22, apprentices with identified Leaner Learning Difficulties or Disabilities (LLDD) made up 14% of starts in England. This represented a yearly increase from 2020-21 of 23%, but an overall decrease of 7% since 2016-17.


Within those with identified LLDD, Dyslexia was the largest group with 17,890 learners. Autism Spectrum Disorder had 1,830 but, despite overall apprentice starts falling, this did represent a 173% increase since 2016-17 which is positive to see.


Finally, in 2020-21, overall achievement rates were 58.1%, however for apprentices with LLDD, it was lower at 54.6% and represents an overall decline since 2018-19 of 12%.
By the sector (training providers, FE colleges and awarding organisations) working closely with employers and community groups, to align thinking and resources, we can ensure any lack of confidence doesn’t continue to lead to the inaction that we’ve seen to date – and those who do become apprentices are supported to succeed.


A great example of this sector-wide collaboration is the Supporting Autistic Individuals into Apprenticeships project led by the Greater Manchester Learning Provider Network (GMLPN) in partnership with NCFE. The project is designed to equip learners with the technical and employability skills to progress into apprenticeships or other destinations.
GMLPN is a network of over 115 training providers, including independent, FE colleges, universities, and voluntary providers. It works alongside key partners, such as the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Jobcentre Plus, and the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, to achieve closer alignment between the needs of employers, individuals, communities, and the suppliers of skills.


Since launching in 2021, the project has seen 46 referrals and GMLPN, together with NCFE, is actively supporting a number of these to find and maintain their apprenticeships or other vocational pathways. This includes providing an individualised package of support to prepare learners for their next steps, as well as support for providers, including guides and best practice.


Charlotte Jones, Operations Manager for GMLPN, said: “There are many barriers that autistic individuals face when it comes to progressing into the employment and skills system, but these barriers can be alleviated when collaboration and partnerships are in place.


“The project has enabled us to bring together the key stakeholders involved in the progression of the autistic individuals referred to the project, to discuss challenges, develop solutions and learn from one another. Apprenticeships are a great option for some autistic individuals, but other options including Supported Internships, Employer Pre-Employment Programmes and Traineeships have also proven to be a great first step to support their progression.


One learner, Sam*, had been referred by a career advisor at their sixth form college. After being partnered with an Independent Training Provider, Sam received in-depth support to prepare them for progressing onto an apprenticeship.


This included help with confidence and independence and led to Sam creating a CV and actively searching for an apprenticeship. After moving to a second provider, Sam started a Level 3 Business Administration apprenticeship and is doing well in the role.
Asked about the experience, Sam’s parents said: “It really spurred them on to actually create a CV, look for vacancies, and ask for adjustments. Something they were worried about doing previously.


“[The provider] was incredibly helpful in highlighting how different work environments might affect how an apprenticeship standard would work in practice. For example, how a business admin apprenticeship in a construction site would compare to a doctor’s surgery.”


This is only one person’s story but an incredibly powerful example of ‘right support, right place, right time’ – as outlined by the Government’s SEND review. By bringing multiple stakeholders together in one supportive environment, it’s easier to overcome barriers that are often very individual to the learner with SEND.


When it comes to autistic adults, there are common traits that both providers and employers must keep in mind when implementing recruitment policies, such as interviews, and in the day-to-day working environment.


Often autistic people will find it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling and get very anxious about social situations, preferring to be on their own or finding it difficult to make friends. It’s important for employers to be clear that this doesn’t mean they ‘don’t fit in’ or ‘aren’t a team player’.


When it comes to managing an autistic apprentice, they can find it hard to say how they feel and take things very literally so adapting communication style accordingly is paramount to a successful working relationship. Having the same routine every day is also very important – something even more crucial as organisations adopt hybrid models.


None of this is reason enough for employers to avoid taking on an autistic apprentice or someone with SEND. In fact, autistic apprentices and employees can bring many benefits to the workplace.


Autistic employees have been found to have fewer absences, are more likely to arrive at work on time, are more reliable, and have dramatically lower turnover rates than neurotypical employees. They can also have strengths such as focus and memory, and the ability to offer a unique perspective.


If we are to ensure another generation of learners with SEND aren’t lost or left behind, we need to do more. Having only one in five autistic adults in employment is a shameful statistic. Through apprenticeships we have the opportunity to offer true equity – recognising that each person is individual and therefore has different circumstances, needs and requirements.


It’s down to all of us to ensure everyone receives the support and resources they need to reach an equal outcome and achieve their personal aspirations.


*Name has been changed


Suzanne is the Director of Operations for Apprenticeships at the educational charity NCFE. Having formerly worked at the North East Chamber of Commerce, she moved into Further Education through roles at two colleges in the region before taking up her current position. Suzanne is passionate about the transformative impact apprenticeships can have on disengaged and disadvantaged young people.
To learn more about apprenticeships at NCFE visit https://www.ncfe.org.uk/apprenticeships/

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