Kate Parker

Work placements that really work for learners with SEND

Too many young people with learning difficulties are left to believe that they will never get a job – but supported internships offer a stepping stone towards employment. Kate Parker looks at how colleges can get the most out of these employer partnerships

Work placements for learners with SEND

For most of his life, Sam Lowe was told he wouldn’t be able to do things. He wouldn’t be able to go to a mainstream school. He wouldn’t be able to live on his own. He wouldn’t be able to get a job.

Lowe has learning difficulties relating to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And until the age of 16, he was repeatedly told that he wouldn’t be able to have a “normal” life as a result of his needs.

But when Lowe started college, that narrative began to change. Suddenly, people were talking about what he could do.

The turning point came when Lowe was placed on a supported internship: a programme that combines learning on the job with traditional lessons.

Supported internships are a popular option for college learners with special educational needs and disabilities. These programmes aim to provide a stepping stone to secure employment for young people who would otherwise struggle to find work.

But supported internships are expensive, and whether they produce long-lasting results for students like Lowe depends on how well they are designed and managed. So how can colleges make sure that the schemes they buy into are worth the time, effort and money – and that their resources wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere?

It is vital that colleges get this right because statistics show that many students with SEND are currently not getting the support they need to take the next steps into employment. In 2018-19, just 5.9 per cent of adults in England with learning disabilities were in employment, according to the British Association for Supported Employment (BASE). Worse still, this figure has been dropping in recent years. Seven years ago, in 2011-12, it was 7.1 per cent (see box, below right).

Supported internships are touted as a means of tackling these statistics. But what does a good supported internship look like? They all follow five key principles (which are listed in the box on page 37).

Students who take part in the schemes are placed with a partner employer to learn on the job. They attend work most (if not all) weekdays, supported by a dedicated job coach. Students also receive training in employability and functional maths and English skills, either at college or from teachers who visit them in their workplace.

However, within this basic format, there is a lot of variation, and every college does things slightly differently. For example, at The Hive College in Birmingham, the focus is on helping students to figure out what sort of career they want to have – and then finding a work placement to match that.

To begin with, this placement is one day a week as part of an ordinary study programme. “If the employer starts to realise that this young person could be somebody they would want to employ, and that young person and their family are happy with that particular employer, we set up a supported internship in which the student goes to work three days a week, and studies at college for two days a week,” explains The Hive principal Kim Everton.

This individualised approach is effective, but it’s also time-consuming – so it might not work at all colleges.

Hereward College in Coventry takes a different approach, offering several established internship models to cater for different needs. One of these models has been devised in partnership with hotel chain Premier Inn and the social enterprise Novus, which paid for a fully functioning mini hotel to be built on the college site.

Students spend time gradually building up front-of-house and housekeeping skills in the hotel, before going on to do experience days at Premier Inn, followed by a supported internship, working four days a week. This model is a good fit for students who need a bit more time to develop employability skills, says Paul Cook, principal at the college.

"Not every learner with disabilities can go from a school or college programme straight into that world of work,” he explains. “Some learners need a substantial amount of time. Having the training facility on our premises means that we can take them through the different aspects of work in a way that’s right for each individual learner.”

For those students who are more confident or who are clearly ready for work at the age of 16, the college also runs a partnership with West Midlands Police. In this model, students enter the internships directly from school, Cook says.

Yet another version is in place at East Coast College in Suffolk, which has chosen to focus its resources on just one model: a scheme called Project Search, developed by the DFN Charitable Foundation. Students are placed in front-line jobs at the local hospital. They rotate through a variety of different positions from ward domestic roles to porter roles and catering roles.

There is no hierarchy to the various approaches – each has its own merits – and variability of approach is likely a positive for learners with SEND: they can look around to find the right approach for them. However, within that variability there does need to be some standardised elements. The first is that the prospect of a an actual job at the end of the scheme needs to be clear

According to DFN, 70 per cent of its interns go on to paid employment, with 60 per cent gaining full-time paid employment. At The Hive College, 80 per cent of students go on to paid employment. And while at Hereward the figure varies from year to year, Cook says it often sees up to 55 per cent of students going into employment.

These figures are certainly encouraging. But colleges also need to consider students who don’t go on to get a job when thinking about how to make supported internships work, warns Ruth Perry, senior policy manager at Natspec, a membership organisation for specialist colleges and education providers.

Supported internships are funded by local authorities and access-to-work funds, and LAs are often reluctant to fund them twice. This means that students tend to get one shot at a supported internship. If the role isn’t the right fit, or the company isn’t able to offer a job at the end of the internship, students can be left with few other options.

This can be a problem, Perry says, because it can knock the confidence of students who are already vulnerable. The solution, she adds, is to have an alternative in place.

"The key thing is not to have the break. Adult services and employment services need to keep working with students while those skills are still there because if they don’t use them, they do tend to lose confidence and lose the belief that they are destined to work,” Perry explains. “If they can be picked up quickly by supported employment services, then it’s not too problematic – but often they’re not. Hopes and dreams can be built up, and then dashed.”

This is a problem that Everton is all too aware of. At The Hive, they make sure they do not send a young person to a supported internship unless they know there is a job role for them to transition into afterwards.

"I make it clear to employers that we take this very seriously,” she says. “They are not going to have somebody working there for three days a week with no prospect of a job at the end of it. If an employer says they can’t commit to that, we will look elsewhere.”

A second key consideration is to remember that supported internships are not the right choice for every student with SEND, says Perry. The students who are put forward for these schemes need to be carefully selected.

"There are students who aren’t physically capable of that extended time in the workplace. If you aren’t likely to end up in full-time employment because of the nature of your disability then a supported internship may not be appropriate,” she says.

Courses that allow more time for therapies, or building general independence skills, could be more helpful.

"These courses are equally as important because they do lead to young people getting some form of paid or voluntary employment,” Perry explains.

If these two considerations are fully thought through, and a supported apprenticeship is found to be the right choice, then the benefits can be huge – for both the student and their family

"Students gain genuine confidence. They understand that they are completing real, valuable tasks, and, over a period of time, that builds in a confidence that can only be gained from the workplace,” says Cook.

Everton agrees with this. “We show parents videos of their child at work and they say, ‘That’s not my child.’ They just can’t believe that they are working in front-of-house and with colleagues. We’ve had parents crying because they can’t believe what’s happened,” she says.

And although the schemes are expensive, when you look at the cost of a specialist education versus the percentage of young people who don’t go on to gain employment, there is a compelling financial case for the internships, suggests Claire Cookson, chief executive at the DFN foundation and DFN Project SEARCH.

"Someone who goes through special education probably costs about £350,000. If 94 per cent of those don’t go into jobs, if they go into a lifetime of benefits, that is a terrible investment. That could cost the economy between £1 million and £3 million over their lifetime. But if they get a job, they actually input into the economy,” she explains.

On balance, then, supported internships do appear to be worth the investment of time and effort, and remain one of the best options out there for students like Lowe. For him, the experience has been invaluable.

The former East Coast College student is now a full-time employee at James Paget University Hospital. Once told he wouldn’t be able to live a normal life, he has now passed his driving test and moved into his own flat, allowing him a level of independence that he thought he would never have.

"I must admit, I didn’t think I would be where I am now, and I didn’t think I would be doing half the stuff on my own,” he says. “I’m still amazed that I’ve managed to do it and come this far. I didn’t think I would, to be honest. It gives me great pride knowing that I have done it.”

Kate Parker is an FE reporter at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 25 September 2020 issue under the headline “Work placements that really work for SEND learners”

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