Set vulnerable learners up for lifelong success

Post-school provision for students with learning difficulties can be patchy, but some schemes provide an inspirational example

Most children will reach a point where they no longer require a parent's care to ensure that their days are happy, productive and safe. For many students with learning difficulties or disabilities, however, that outcome is by no means guaranteed: progression to adulthood does not necessarily equate to progression to independence.

At school, preparation for this change comes in the form of life-skills lessons taught alongside the mainstream curriculum. But once students reach school-leaving age, there is still much to be done to get them into employment and develop their independence. Further education colleges are expected to bridge this gap, but even those with specialist provision can find the role a challenge. Thankfully, there are examples of best practice that can be followed.

City College Norwich is one such example. It has developed a highly successful model that matches learners with trained job coaches, who work with them to break down barriers to paid employment. The coaches use a technique called training in systematic instruction.

Rob Bates, head of school at the college, explains how this works: "A job coach will go into an employer and will learn the job first. Then they take the student to the job, teach them how to do it. They carry on working with that individual as long as they are needed to support them."

This individualised support is gradually phased out when the learner reaches a point where they can continue in the work environment alone, but the coach is available when needed. In the past two years, City College Norwich has supported more than 140 young people with learning difficulties and disabilities into sustained paid employment using this approach.

While this is an impressive scheme, it is unsurprisingly an expensive one. However, such significant investment in young people at this early stage may well save on potentially greater costs to the health and criminal justice systems, which this demographic is vulnerable to falling into. A recent report on the treatment of offenders with learning disabilities estimates that people with such conditions are a sizable minority within the English prison system, with figures believed to be as high as 30 per cent.

Jarlath O'Brien, headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey - a school for young people between the ages of 11 and 19 with moderate learning difficulties - argues that looking to the future in this way is essential. "The test of special school success is what students do when they are 25 or 30, not what they do immediately," he says.

He believes that the job coach model solves a common problem faced by these students when seeking employment: they have much to offer but need support to prove it. An increased focus on collaboration between special education and FE colleges would also be beneficial, O'Brien explains, adding: "If the same people can transition them through their educational experience for longer, the students are much more settled."

One proposal is for special schools' sixth-form provision to be accommodated on FE college campuses. Another is for closer links between colleges and the local community. An example of this in action is Transition 2, an organisation in Derby governed by St Andrews, a local specialist school rated outstanding by inspectors. In partnership with Derby College and the city council, Transition 2 has taken the notion of collaboration to the next level, involving the community in the support and transition of young adults. The approach is guided by the concepts of asset-based community development and local area coordination, which are often described using the following case study: an elderly lady incapable of maintaining her garden is linked with a young couple who want to grow their own vegetables but live in a flat. The couple get a garden, the elderly lady gets company and a relationship is built within the local community.

Transition 2 secures work placements for students in a similar way, explains Janine Cherrington, head of service for the organisation. "Working with the local authority, we placed a young autistic man in the local library near to where he lives," she says. "The library suits his personality, as he likes the structure, quiet, calmness and order. And he does a fantastic job.

"Through the work at the library, our young person has widened his social network. He also has lunch at a little cafe near the library instead of going home, so he is now friends with the people who run the cafe, who look out for him as well."

Such integrated initiatives allow young people's life skills to continually develop, while members of the community fulfil a safeguarding role.

Both City College Norwich and Transition 2 are models that should be an inspiration to other institutions. By supporting society's most vulnerable young people in these ways, we can significantly improve the chances of them reaching meaningful long-term destinations.

Sarah Simons teaches in further education colleges across the North of England

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