Article for the My Future Choices Magazine
I have been invited by the Transition Information Network (Council for Disabled
Children) to share my experiences of supporting young people with learning
difficulties and disabilities in their journey from education to employment.
My work with young disabled people started in 1996 at Oaklands College in St
Albans, Hertfordshire, when I was appointed as a Work Experience Organiser
and Coordinator. My job was to provide work experience for some 70 students
with learning difficulties and disabilities.
During the next five years I learnt that a lot of important vocational learning and
social development can take place during work experience, and that work
experience can lead to paid employment, providing that we put the right support
mechanisms in place.
In 2003 a new opportunity presented itself through the college’s close links with
the Welfare to Work Executive at Hertfordshire County Council.
I was given the task to design, develop and deliver a new system of transitional
support; one which would take our disabled students a step up from work
experience and provide them with a bridge to employment.
Then as now, we were observing increasing numbers of academically able
students, such as those with high functioning autism or Aspergers syndrome
entering a variety of mainstream courses. They were working hard, achieving
highly regarded qualifications, and were also keen to find employment.
However, finding work was often difficult to accomplish.
There are many different factors responsible for this, such as lack of social and
communication skills, lack of job-specific, and other - wider employability skills,
as well as little experience of the real world of work.
Another factor – vital in my opinion - is the lack of available transitional support,
with a specific focus on employment.
The way that most people develop their wider employability skills (such as
initiative, reliability, punctuality, problem solving, and team working), as well the
more job-specific skills (for example, shelf-filling or photocopying), is the “natural
way” - in the workplace.
This is usually done through daily interaction with other workers and customers,
when doing a real job, often working for more than one employer, in a variety of
work settings, and over a period of time in each one.
The time we spend at school, college or university is a period of learning,
experimentation, and on occasion, making mistakes. It is only through real
experiences that real learning takes place.
Skills which we acquire in real life situations, including college, the workplace, or
the local community, are the building blocks for a successful, happy and fulfilling
life for all of us.
People with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, and in particular those on the
autistic spectrum, really do struggle to make sense of the world around them,
and that includes the world of work.
By providing Oaklands’ students with a choice and a variety of real working
opportunities (appropriate to their skills and abilities) in the form of “stepping
stones”, such as job tasters, work shadowing, supported voluntary work,
supported work experience, and with an on-going individual support, we are
ensuring their successful transition to an independent lif e.
Facts and figures
During the past five years we have created 86 different working opportunities for
44 disabled students, as listed below:
28 students were provided with supported work experience in the
22 were supported into paid employment;
25 students were provided with supported voluntary work experience
(short term) or voluntary work (long term);
11 were given the opportunity to work on the Macintyre Care Transition
Project*, and the Big Lottery funded WorkAbility Project**.
Last June, at the end of the 2006/7 academic year, there were 4 students
entering paid employment through this transitional route, the youngest being only
17 years old with high functioning autism and diabetes, having successfully
completed a 6-month period of supported work experience at Waitrose.
All these jobs are part-time, and are combined with a variety of college courses
that relate to the jobs (for example, Edexcel Entry Level Business Retail/Admin
with 2 days of paid employment at Waitrose).
The benefits of supported work experience:
For the student:
Early and seamless transition from supported work experience into
Choice and variety of jobs to try
Opportunity to train on the job
Opportunity for paid work while learning
1:1 support at the college (Transition Worker and SSA, if appropriate) and
at work (work buddy and Transition Worker/Job Coach, when necessary)
Course work easier to understand when already doing the job (and vice
No need for stressful formal interview
Good knowledge of workplace routines builds confidence
Help with career/job development
For the employer:
Time spent on training is invested, not wasted
Students are ready for normal employment at the end of supported work
Opportunity to employ someone with a proven track record and the
training already completed
In-house training, to employer’s own standards
Specialist job coaching is available, if necessary
Opportunity to increase workforce diversity and the potential to increase
Effective, no-cost recruitment
Opportunity to employ hard-working, dedicated and loyal employees
On-going support for as long as it is needed, provided by a named person
There were some challenges that I encountered in my work; the biggest were
students’ job development (increasing working hours for part-time workers or
changing a job role), the benefits system and the inflexibility of the college
Realisation that it is just as difficult to sustain employment as to access it, for a
disabled person, was an eye opener for me too.
With the employment of socially disadvantaged people now becoming a much
more urgent issue, there is a much greater need for the sharing of our
experiences (good and bad), exchanging of ideas and good practice.
I appreciate being given the opportunity to share my experiences with the
readers of your magazine.
Enclosed herewith are the self penned stories of two young people who were
provided with transitional support at Oaklands College: Patrick Fitzgerald and
Patrick has nine GCSE’s (English Language, Mathematics, French, German,
Religious Education, English Literature, Science, Business Studies/IT, History)
gained at a mainstream secondary school, and GNVQ Intermediate in IT from
Patrick left college over two years ago, requesting only minimal assistance with
finding part-time paid employment. He was interested in a mix of paid and unpaid
work, so on leaving college Patrick had two paid part-time Administrative posts
and two unpaid voluntary jobs.
Patrick was trained “on the job” in the Supplies Department of St Albans City
Hospital. Although the training was successful, it did not result in paid
employment (no vacancies). Patrick acquired further administrative skills and
wider employability skills through voluntary work at Shopmobility, in his local
Library, as well as through two college projects: the Macintyre Care Transition
Project and WorkABILITY Project.
Just recently, after 3 years in employment, Patrick has lost one of his paid posts
due to his company’s relocation. As he is no longer a student at Oaklands
College, he was introduced to the Shaw Trust for further support.
Lee went to a special school in Hertfordshire and then enrolled on the Ready for
Work course at Oaklands College.
Lee had traditional work experience organised by the college work experience
coordinator, at the local Somerfields supermarket. Lee impressed his employers
with his hard work and good attitude, but ultimately there was no vacancy for a
Customer Assistant post.
However, the manager indicated that there was a vacancy in the Bakery, to bake
bread and to operate the rotisserie. Lee was trained on the job for both duties by
his employers, with the help of Oaklands’ Job Coach/Transition Worker.
Lee has been in paid employment since May 2007; his job is for 3 mornings per
week, with the opportunity for additional hours during public and college holidays,
which he enthusiastically takes advantage of.
Lee also enrolled on the Entry level Business Retail and Administration course,
which he attends over 2 days per week, with the knowledge and support of his
Lee considers himself to be in the “perfect job” at Somerfields. Once he reaches
16 hours per week, or leaves college, he will be referred to Work Solutions or the
Shaw Trust, for further support for as long as he or his employer needs it.
* Macintyre Care Transition Project
Learners with learning disabilities from Oaklands College played a prominent part
in the whole life cycle of this project - from the setting up of a Focus Group to
editing and piloting of the produced learning materials, also including taking part
in the Project’s Launch at the Princess Diana Trust Fund offices at County Hall in
London in 2005.
The learning materials (set out in the form of seven Workbooks), were in effect
created by and for young people with learning disabilities in the age group 19-25,
and covered topics of special interest to them, such as: About Me, Learning and
Further Education, Work Opportunities, Leisure Options, Family, Friends and
Relationships, Independent Travel and Leaving Home.
**WorkAbility, user-driven, Big Lottery funded Project
Oaklands College started this project in 2006 in partnership with Hertfordshire
PASS (Personal Assistance Support Services), in order to bridge the gap in
service provision for specialist equipment for students on work experience, which
Access to Work does not cover.
Students on work experience, who require (for example) some specialist
computer software, an adjustable desk, a removable wheelchair ramp, or any
other equipment necessary for them to carry out their duties at work, with the
funding available through this project, are now able to do so.
The project’s aim is to “Overcome barriers to work for people with a learning or
physical challenge”. It is a user-led project, where the students make all the
decisions relating to Employer Engagement and Work Experience, with the
support being provided for them by the project’s Employment Facilitator.
Outreach Transition Worker
Tel: 01727 737000 ext 6062