How to help learners with SEND into the workplace

18th March 2016 at 00:00
The principal of a special needs college shares her tips for setting up a programme to develop professional skills

In August 2013, the government introduced traineeships for young people who wish to get an apprenticeship or find other employment but lack the basic skills and experience that employers are looking for.

At Orchard Hill College, we grasped this initiative and ran with it for our students with special needs and I believe that it’s going very well. As principal and chief executive of the college, I know that our students have the potential to do amazing things: they just need the right support and help.

Working with the whole community – local authorities, councillors and employers – can help to alter how people with special needs are viewed and ensure that they are recognised for the amazing things that they can offer, rather than them just being seen as recipients of care.

Often when our students come to us, they have had bad experiences and our job is to find their skillset and what motivates them. If we can do that, they simply fly.

We’re very well established with traineeships. Our most successful programme is with Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital – we’re in our third year with them now.

What started out as a pilot in 2013 has ended up as an exemplar. Staff at the hospital have an unwaveringly positive attitude towards the traineeship programme.

Traineeships enable us to reach and help those who have milder learning difficulties, as well as the Neets (those not in education, employment or training). Last academic year, we were able to put 41 students successfully through traineeships, working with various employers including the Peabody Trust, Places for People, Crystal Palace Football Club, Oxfam and lots more.

We’ve had some positive outcomes. Riccado couldn’t get an apprenticeship because of his health needs, so he did his traineeship at Guy’s and St Thomas’. He’s now a full-time sales adviser for Dixons at Gatwick Airport.

Fern overcame some significant barriers, including ADHD. She completed a traineeship with Oxfam and now has a job at Kingfisher Leisure Centre. And there are many more stories like this.

At Orchard Hill, we don’t present individual traineeships to students – such as bricklaying or hairdressing. Instead we say: “Come in, let’s see what you’re about, what you have to offer and let’s see what we can find for you.”

Everyone has his or her niche: something or somewhere that they just fit. Believe me, working with people who have special needs is a job like no other – you get these magic moments and they drive you.

If you are thinking about setting up a similar programme for students with SEND and want to encourage learners to apply and engage with it, here are a few tips.

Appropriate marketing

Aside from making sure that your communication and marketing is appropriate for your audience, try to ensure that you have open days that are truly open and encourage as much word-of-mouth activity as you can.

Tell the success stories

Make sure that you tell the world about your triumphs and make sure that your success stories are visible – get councillors, employers, the mayor, local MPs or anyone that you can involved. Let them be part of the success.

It’s always about the student

Make sure students know what you can offer. Gear the training to what they need. Our students are the learners who find it difficult to go to a mainstream training provider or college – we are able to offer them additional expertise, as well as support networks. But when we have a student who wants a mainstream traineeship, we make sure to introduce them to a mainstream provider: it’s always about the student.

Face-to-face works best

Open events, working with the community and grass-roots organisations are important ways to forge links. So are the local authority, councillors and other stakeholders. Take time to build the relationships with them and the wider community.

Clarity is key

Keep the language simple. Make sure you tell students, parents, local authorities, employers and other stakeholders exactly what you’re doing. And make sure that you ditch the education jargon: while programme names, initiatives and government priorities change, you must remain constant.

Let’s celebrate

Focus on raising awareness in an appropriate way and recognise students’ success. For example, each year we take part in a celebration for all colleges in south London at the House of Lords. Tea on the terrace is a real treat.

Caroline Allen is principal of Orchard Hill Multi Academy Trust, which runs five college sites and three schools across London and Surrey

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