SEND: 5 steps towards sustainable work placements

Creating social enterprises can give SEND students access to long-term work placements, writes Caitriona Snell

Caitriona Snell

SEND: 5 steps for colleges to create sustainable work placements

Just 6 per cent of adults with a learning disability known to their local authority in England are in paid work. Within the context of Covid-19, disabled people have found it even harder to gain valuable, paid employment, and are often penalised as the first to be let go. Digital skills are in demand, but disabled people often struggle with digital accessibility and skills. 

It’s no surprise that sourcing and sustaining placements for SEND students is hard and becoming harder. 

A new phenomenon may be part of the answer to provide consistent, sustainable placements for our most in-need students. Social enterprises are developed as profit-making businesses that work for a specific social or environmental cause, usually with a product, by hiring from a specific group or by donating profits back to a cause.  


Long read: Work placements that really work for learners with SEND

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Combining the impact of education settings with the practicality of social enterprises is just what we have been developing here at London South East Colleges.

Creating internal work placements for SEND learners

Utilising existing expertise within London South East Colleges’ Nido Volans Centre has allowed us to explore the creation of work experience placements for SEND students internally. Our young people are already developing products, have excellent computer-based skills and are interested in office settings, or would love retail experience within a shop or supermarket. 

How could we combine these pieces of the puzzle to create something worthwhile?  

We are developing some innovative enterprises that could be the answer to providing a valuable stepping stone for our learners to enter full-time employment and change the narrative around disability employment. Some of these are digitally transformative, combining online and offline experiences and allowing us to accommodate more vulnerable learners in an agile way during the pandemic.

Establishing the foundation for your project is key. The group’s vision promotes generating social value through strong, sustainable communities. We have an additional focus on online innovation, combining our in-person placements with digital skills training. This leapfrogs over the capacity issue that learning companies often find to be a barrier. Combined with a focused and forward-thinking team, we have a recipe for success. 

A work experience-focused social enterprise within college

Further than this, we have some tips and tricks that could help you in building a work experience-focused social enterprise in your education setting: 

  1. Ask yourself, what exists already? At London South East Colleges, we were lucky enough to have some resources that gave us a foundation to establish social action projects. The ideas we implemented were also low-cost and low-risk. Do you have skills that students are learning that could be developed into practical placements through a social enterprise? 
  2. What are others doing? When we researched social enterprises in education, we discovered a lot of inspiring ideas from other education settings. A small cinema to service a town without one, or a community hub leading pay-as-you-can sessions, could be options for you. Is your local area in need of a specific service? Could you partner with another organisation to use their space, like an industrial kitchen for catering placements? 
  3. Listen to as many people as possible. While researching this project, we took feedback from a lot of different people – from senior staff, to teachers leading groups of students, job coaches from a local charity, volunteers and the students themselves. The combination of expertise across these people is invaluable and important to include as much as possible. Who should be a stakeholder in your project? Are you able to gather them in one (virtual) room for an open discussion and feedback on a regular basis? 
  4. Maintain agility (but stick to your core goal). We had a number of options with this project, from service offerings to retail, but this has changed as we have gained feedback. Maintaining agility has allowed us to pivot this project as new ideas, voices and information have come into the mix. And having our goal kept us on track with our vision – more work experience for our students. Are you willing to adapt to changing circumstances to ensure that your project is the best fit? Do you have a clear goal in mind? 
  5. Set a timeline (and try to stick to it). We had our project planned out from the beginning and clearly knew our deadlines. With the new lockdown restrictions and urgent changes made in all education settings, many of our timelines have been delayed. With an agile mindset, we are able to adjust our plans and expectations, so we don’t lose momentum. When do you hope to achieve this project? Is it dependent on a certain person or group that are only able to commit for a specific amount of time? How could you adjust your project to flex when events outside of your control impact on you? 

Caitriona Snell is a social innovation fellow on secondment at London and South East Education Group

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