Outside the box


How a creative approach to careers education can work wonders for students in special schools

Careers education is a vital part of all students’ education. It is crucial that students fully understand the options available and that they are given the support and advice they need to make the right choice for them. This article outlines some of the innovative and creative approaches to careers education and work-related learning used in special schools across the whole spectrum of need. As students get older, the focus in special schools is on successful transitions, and a wide-ranging interpretation of the term “career” can lead to some really effective work.

I have heard it said that there is no point in doing careers education with students with severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties because they will never work. However, this is to completely misunderstand the meaning of the word “career”. The term “career” means “path through life” and, clearly, all students have one of those. If some of our students will spend their lives in a series of day centres, residential centres and supported work environments, then that is their career. So, careers education should have a broad definition to include life and independent living skills. In addition, all students have the right to learn about the world of work, as much as they have the right to learn about geography; at the very least, they need to learn about the world around them.

Most students with less severe learning difficulties want to work or continue into FE, but they can need a huge amount of support to do so. Careers education, coupled with positive attitudes amongst employers and FE colleges, can help give students the confidence and skills to make an active contribution in society.

Areas of learning

Careers education, as a subject, is organised into three areas of learning. These are:

  • self awareness – the ability to understand individual strengths and weaknesses and make plans to improve oneself and build employability and life skills
  • career exploration – finding out about, and trying out, future opportunities in, for example, work, further education (FE), higher education (HE), training, voluntary work, day centres and residential provision
  • career management – making decisions about future choices, making effective job/course applications and coping with transitions.

Each of these three areas of learning can be a huge challenge for students with SEN and disabilities. However, the application of best practice in special schools can enable students and their parents/carers to work effectively on these three areas at the appropriate level for the student.

It is important to provide learners with careers experience and opportunities that are relevant to their levels of ability. When I visited a special school recently, two non-verbal young men took my order for coffee, made the coffee and served me perfectly, using picture cards for communication. They then showed their teacher the employability skills they had used by pointing to symbol cards. This is highly appropriate careers education for these students. Whilst mainstream students might be on a “proper” work experience placement, for these students, serving coffee to school visitors provides excellent experience of the world of work.

Engaging students in making choices

For most students, the use of visual cues works really well for careers education, as it does for most other subjects, so it can be really useful to use photographs and other images. I sometimes stick a series of job photos around the classroom and then give each student either a blank post-it note (if they can write their name) or one with their name on it, and then ask the students to move around looking at the jobs before putting their name on the job they like best. If they are able to, students can then explain what they might like about the job, anything they might not like about it and even the skills the person would need.

Picture or word schedules, again routinely used in classrooms, can be used to great effect when students are learning about the world of work. For example, one student with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), that I worked with, went on work experience every Monday to a golf club. The employer, teacher and student produced a schedule (shown below) in the form of a visual checklist of tasks for him to do. He was able to work independently for short periods whilst carrying out these simple tasks, and felt a great sense of achievement in completing them.

There are many excellent careers materials, including software, posters and lesson materials, available for students with learning difficulties and disabilities and you should be able to find out about these from your school’s careers adviser. Don’t reinvent the wheel; ask others what they use and remember that whatever the new curriculum might look like, you know what your students need in order to maximise their future career opportunities. The right support can make a huge difference. As one 16-year-old student at a special school told me: “I know I am not clever but my teacher got me work experience at the stables. Now I’ve got a Saturday job there and my sister comes to help me. I am so proud.”

Further information

Christine Thomas is a consultant, writer and trainer specialising in careers education, PSHE and work related learning for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. She is an executive member of the Association for Careers Education and Guidance (ACEG):

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