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Jessica Rexworthy looks at how the right work experience can help young people with SEN make the transition to employment

Since the abolishment of the statutory requirement for a two week work experience placement in years 10/11 two years ago, to allow schools and colleges “more flexibility” in terms of tailored work experience programmes, employers and training providers have been left to pick up the pieces and work directly with young people.

Many schools were given the additional responsibility of offering some form of work related learning, yet they had limited resources to continue organisation of provision and work experience was low on their priority list. This is even more of a challenge for specialist schools and colleges, where the spend per learner is significantly higher than average, and therefore worrying news for young people with a disability or SEN. 

Whilst young people from all backgrounds can find it difficult to enter the world of work without experience, it is especially challenging for those with SEN. Often SEN can be seen as a barrier to employment, both physically and in terms of capability. Increased barriers to employment have resulted in those with disabilities or SEN being more than twice as likely to be not in education, employment or training (NEET) than those without (Ofsted, 2011). 

A changing landscape

Non-mandatory work experience was like the beginning of a downward spiral – reinforced by the decline of the Saturday job and the introduction of RPA (raising the participation age) to 18 by 2015. Learners with SEN have complex needs. Soon, they will need to stay in education or training for longer, but with no appropriate provision. Current evidence shows that many of these young people do not continue in education, training or employment because the curriculum or programmes did not interest them or are not at the right level for them (Ofsted, 2010); this is a problem which will only intensify.

Another difficulty is the wide range of conditions that are classified as SEN, making it nearly impossible to match suitable provision based on individual need. For every study showing the number of unemployed young people, those with SEN are under-represented. It costs more for a training provider to deliver an apprenticeship for learners with SEN, but cost shouldn’t be an issue for employers. Organisations who offer work experience and apprenticeships add value to their workforce, as they are gaining innovative employees whom they can train to fit the organisation. Therefore, it is more often employer perception that needs to change, rather than a lack of money to make it happen.   

The Little Report (2011) confirmed that there was a decline in the proportion of apprentices with disabilities and SEN. Feedback from employers, when asked if they felt supported, was that whilst they felt help and support was available, it took a lot of research and time to access it. In response to concern about a cohort of young people who have the potential to succeed in apprenticeships but who would have difficulty persuading an employer to take them on straight away, the Government introduced a new Access to Apprenticeship pathway within the apprenticeship programme. Through a customised menu of training and work experience drawn from an apprenticeship framework, the Access programme shows that work experience can be beneficial in offering young people the opportunity to brush up skills such as literacy and numeracy and to prove themselves as keen, reliable workers.

Getting employers on board

The Access programme works for employers who are already engaged in offering work experience, but how do we engage those that aren’t? Whilst most people recognise the need for young people to gain relevant work experience, currently only one in four employers offer it. This number is even lower for young people with disabilities and SEN. Many of the large corporate employers are easier to get on board and are willing to spend money on engaging disabled young people as part of a wider corporate social responsibility plan. However, for small and medium scale enterprises and third sector employers who lack this resource, there is a bigger challenge – one which starts with the recruitment process. 

Traditional recruitment methods, such as CVs or application forms followed by interviews, are not the best way of assessing talent for young people with SEN who may lack confidence. Attendance at a special school or college on their CV may mean they don’t even make it to the interview stage. This can only be overcome by reducing the stigma associated with a disability and showcasing the achievements of disabled people as positive role models; the London Paralympics were a great example of this. 

Bad attitude

One perhaps unlikely role model is that of US hit drama Breaking Bad’s Walter Junior, played by RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy. In a 2014 interview published online on i100 from the Independent, Mitte appealed to people with disabilities to “not be manipulated by fear, and to not let people manipulate you using that fear”, adding: “Even though you have a disability, that does not make you disabled [in other ways]. It gives you insight. It gives you knowledge. It gives you something that someone without that will never learn”.

This insight is what is needed to appeal to employers. The challenge for an employer is to find the best person for the job, not the best person at selling themselves at interview. Employers who offer work experience can meet fresh minded, motivated individuals and assess their potential for employment opportunities. They can help overcome barriers to employment by providing a young person with an introduction to working life, enabling them to build a platform for their future.

Making the most of it

Of course, work experience offers many benefits for young people too. It gives them an opportunity to develop their skills and try out the role, often discovering new talents along the way. The young person may not have experienced a workplace before, so it is an ideal opportunity for them to feel comfortable and increase their confidence, as well as gaining that all important experience to put on their CV. 

Not every work experience placement ends in success. It could be that a young person gets a completely different view of the sector they thought they would thrive in. However, this should still be classed as a positive experience, as they begin to understand what they want from a career. Similarly, an employer may feel that a young person is not ideal for a particular role, but may be better suited to a different opportunity within the organisation. 

Although further education (FE) learners with SEN express high levels of satisfaction with their learning experience, with 90 percent satisfied, they are less likely than those who do not have SEN to agree that their course has given them skills they can use for a job, or that it will help them to advance in their career (BIS, 2011). Both Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and Shadow Minister Tristram Hunt recognise the value of work experience, with the latter confirming it will be once again made compulsory if Labour win the 2015 election. But there is no mention of who will be responsible for this, or whether it will vary from the previous two week programme at age 14 to 16, which given RPA, wouldn’t be sufficient for young people’s transition into employment. 

Skills Minister Nick Boles recently announced that he believes every young person should be able to access work experience but that mandating it was not the right way to go: “To put it bluntly, mandating work experience didn’t work for the previous government and wouldn’t work now. Good schools will do the right things for young people as part of their mission”. He announced that the new Careers and Enterprise Company’s priority will be encouraging more employers to offer good quality work placements; part of this will require every school to have an “enterprise adviser” who will liaise directly with their LEP to co-ordinate work experience.

Making it count

Local authorities can play a central part in organising work experience provision because of the data which they collect about learners with SEN. If this data was more comprehensive and listed actual disabilities, it would be easier to match specific career options to individuals. Aside from data collection, local authorities facing millions of pounds worth of cuts are unlikely to be able to widen the net of employers. But there are organisations with increased funding and strong links with local employers, in the form of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), which have more control over their local economy.

As part of their skills strategy, LEPs should be co-ordinating vacancies and making up-to-date labour market information readily available. In Coventry and Warwickshire, the LEP Skills Strategy identifies strategic priorities which outline the need for “future proofing our workforce through closer working between employers, schools, colleges, universities and training providers” and “increasing the use of supported internships to help those with LDD (learning difficulties and disabilities) find and remain in work” (CWLEP, 2014). 

Setting the standard

The skills strategy recommends that employers adhere to the national Work Experience Quality Standard accreditation, which has been developed by, amongst others, the DfE, Ofsted, MIND and a range of employers. The Work Experience Quality Standard allows employers and training providers to work towards a set of frameworks, enabling organisations to ensure that comprehensive programmes of work experience, traineeships and apprenticeships are being delivered, helping young people to become more employable. 

This national initiative could be used alongside The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education’s (NIACE) employer toolkit, produced to demonstrate the simple and cost-effective actions that employers can take, including around recruitment and ongoing support, to make their apprenticeship programmes open to disabled apprentices. Again, this resource could be pushed out regionally through LEPs, which the Centre for Social Justice has recommended employ work experience champions (CSJ, 2014).

There are high satisfaction rates for employers who do take on a disabled learner for work experience or as an apprentice. In NIACE’s work, for example, employers that took part found they were able to extend the pool of high-quality applicants available to them, engage with the widest possible consumer base, and have a workforce that reflects the diverse range of customers they serve (NIACE, 2014). Ensuring that young people are offered meaningful work placements to help them adjust to the workplace is just as important as engaging employers to overcome any preconceptions which they have about employing a young person with SEN. 

Further information

Jessica Rexworthy is Marketing, Promotions and Media Manager at Fair Train, the Group Training Association for the third sector and creator of the national Work Experience Quality Standard and Work Experience Week:
www.fairtrain.org

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