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Finding a place in the world

A work-experience project in Essex is making opportunities for young people who often miss out. Phil Revell reports

Harry is helping to dismantle computers for a recycling company. Rebecca has been working in a kennel. Andy's two weeks went so well that his employer offered him a job. It's work experience, and everyone knows the value of those 10 days out of school when young people make their way in the adult world. However, these Essex teenagers all attend special schools - for this group of young people, work experience has not been a normal part of their preparation for leaving school.

In general terms, people with severe, profound or multiple difficulties have had little opportunity for work experience, says Steve Pickles, who works for the mental health charity Mencap. In fact, the reality for most special school students is a future filled with day centres and therapies.

Employment is rarely an option. Nationally, Mencap estimates that 10 per cent of people with a learning disability are in work.

Some students are catered for in the current system; work experience organisations such as Trident, which co-ordinates placements for mainstream pupils, offers places for young people with special needs. Typically, however, these are for students who are in a mainstream school environment or who have a purely physical disability. Students at a special school, such as The Edith Borthwick Special School, near Braintree in Essex, would require individual support in a work experience placement, and until now that support hasn't been readily available.

The change came with the Heading to Work project - an initiative led by Mencap and Essex County Council, and funded by an pound;800,000 grant from the European Union Social Fund. "We are backing this project because it is offering something that many of our students have not been able to take part in before," says Gary Pocock, Edith Borthwick's headteacher.

Heading to Work was launched last year and aimed to offer real work experience opportunities for young people at 10 Essex special schools. A bigger challenge was the commitment to turn some of those placements into jobs. "It is giving these students the chance to take part in supported work placements, go on taster days, develop skills," says Steve Pickles.

"Our aim was for 50 of these young people to enter paid work when they leave school. The spin-off is that the public see people with a learning disability working - in their local restaurant, at their garage, when they take a stroll in the park."

In many ways, Heading to Work mirrors a traditional work experience programme. Young people at the 10 schools are interviewed about their interests and ambitions, and employers are contacted in the search for suitable placements. The difference is the support offered by the project's eight employment co-ordinators. Sometimes that support takes the form of reassuring an employer, sometimes it is the student who needs the individual attention.

"I work with 32 students, but they aren't all out on placement at the same time," says employment co-ordinator Beverley Forbes.

"When students are in a placement they might tell the employer they are enjoying it, but they might tell me that they can manage something more demanding, which the employer is usually happy to offer. If the student needs transport to the place of work, we support that. Or we may help them plan their route. They may never have bought a ticket before. Actually getting to work is part of the project," says her colleague, Andy Ward.

The employers brought into the scheme vary from national names to small local businesses, and include Tesco, the Royal Mail, Homebase, the Essex Rabbit Rescue Centre and Doggy Style Grooming, a local dog-grooming salon.

Harry, a student in his last year at Edith Borthwick, enjoys his Tuesday afternoons at ReVitalise, a computer recycling charity based in Malden.

Headteacher Gary Pocock is clear that the project has educational and employment benefits. "We are always looking for new contexts for learning.

In the future there is a real need to look at whether schools should think about employing work experience co-ordinators. There needs to be someone driving forward work-related learning."

That future need is relevant because the project funding comes to an end next year. "The Learning Skills Council has a remit to fund projects like this and we will be applying for funding from local LSC, but how do you put a price on the raised expectations that we are achieving?" asks Steve Pickles.

"Traditionally, people in this age range have not had the opportunities of their mainstream counterparts, but time and time again we have seen that a broad range of people with learning difficulties can go into work, provided the support is right for them. If we can work with people in their last two years of education then far more will go into the world of work," he says.

The project team and associated schools are aware of the difficulties. For some students the programme is largely educational; their special needs are so complex that future employment is not a realistic possibility. But Gary Pocock estimates that around half of his current older age group could cope in the workplace, provided they were properly supported. There is clearly some way to go in persuading employers that young people with learning disabilities can contribute. However, the employers in the Heading to Work scheme are positive.

Some problems come from an unexpected quarter. "Parents are sometimes concerned that their benefits will be affected if their son or daughter finds a job," says Andy Ward. "Others are convinced that their children can't work - they have cocooned their children all their lives."

The project also employs two mentors with learning disabilities. "This is the first paid job that I have had," says April Glasscock. "I support students, help them with any problems and talk to them. I am enjoying it. I am happy that I am working."

* Some names have been changed.

For more details about the Heading to Work project, visit the Mencap website

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