Colleges are pioneering a way to help students with learning difficulties into work as part of wide-ranging new rights for people with special educational needs (SEN) after they leave school.
In a pilot programme, 14 colleges are offering "supported internships" for students who have completed their studies and need help to move into the world of work. Staff contact employers to secure the unpaid placements, offer training for the workplace and send in a support worker to assist each intern in the job every day for up to 12 months.
The Department for Education, which is spending #163;3 million on the pilot, intends to allow all colleges to offer the programme from September. It forms part of what the Department calls the largest reform of SEN for 30 years, which aims to provide a single system of assessment and support for people with SEN from early childhood through to adulthood and work.
Supported internships are based on the work of the Realistic Opportunities for Supported Employment (Rose) project at Havering College in Essex. Launched in 2006, Rose helps about 20-30 students each year to gain experience of work, with about 80 per cent securing full-time jobs.
At Blackburn College, the internship pilot is dubbed Get Set and involves 14 students, although programme leader Jo Dexter said it could easily have recruited 75. Participants range from those with complex and multiple needs to those with autistic spectrum disorders, or visual or hearing impairments.
A few months in, all the students have secured work placements at businesses including record shops, a children's farm and Blackburn Rovers FC. One participant with Asperger's syndrome has been offered a permanent role as a garage receptionist.
"Some of it is knocking on doors, rounding up employers. We have a large system where you can see the employers we're in contact with and what type of internship they can offer, and whether they would take students with additional needs. This year, though, I've literally knocked on doors," said Ms Dexter. "It's exceptionally difficult. We knew it would be. We're also dealing with three generations of unemployment. One person with additional needs was the first person in their family to work."
Even internships that do not lead to paid work are valuable for the students, Ms Dexter said, giving them experience in the workplace and helping them to build a CV, which will mean they are more likely to get work in the future. "It's not about qualifications for a lot of employers," she said. "It's about experience."
At the start of the programme, students' skills are assessed and they attend a two-week course on interpersonal skills, called Get Ready. The students also undertake commercial qualifications - for example, in health and safety - which Ms Dexter said help to make them more work-ready.
But the central element of the programme is their internship, supported by a job coach. When both the employer and the student are happy, the one-to-one assistance is taken away, although the coaches may return temporarily if a new skill is being introduced to the job. This ongoing support can be offered for up to two years if necessary.
The programme includes elements to build up students' confidence and independence, such as completing a certificate in living and working abroad, which culminates at the end of the year-long programme in a trip to Poland, where students experience a new culture and gain skills.