Janet Wingate-Whyte describes the work of Project SEARCH, preparing young people with SEND to enter the workplace
As young people with SEND approach 18 and reach the end of their time at school, they are faced with answering the question of ‘what next?’ What is the right next step which will allow them to lead a meaningful and rewarding adult life? Formal education has always provided them with a clear path but now they need to embark on a new chapter which isn’t necessarily mapped out. Thankfully there are now many different options open to them – one of which is entering the workplace.
But preparing young people with SEND for employment isn’t just a case of helping them write a CV, showing them how to search for a job and then hoping for the best; in order to thrive in the workplace, they need real life experience as well as specific advice, guidance and, importantly, an abundance of encouragement. This is exactly what we seek to do at Project SEARCH – a supported internship programme which gives young people with SEND real world workplace training and equips them with important employability skills.
The East London branch of the programme, which is run at Whipps Cross Hospital by Whitefield Academy Trust in partnership with DFN International, has been successfully preparing young people with SEND for the workplace for eight years. Through our work with over 100 interns, we have identified the elements that need to come together to ensure each young person with SEND can make a successful entry into the world of work.
First, like all SEND education, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and it is vital that any employability training programme is built around the young person. This means finding out what they enjoy and what motivates them, the skills they want to develop, the tasks they want to do as well as those they do not. If a young person enjoys speaking to others, then they will excel in a customer facing role and if they want to develop their IT skills, then they should be put in an administrative department. If they enjoy what they are doing and believe that, with the right support and training, they can do the job then they will succeed.
Second, young people with SEND need one-to-one, tailored support. They need to know that there is someone they can turn to when they are facing difficulties; someone who has their back and is willing them to do well. This is why at Project SEARCH each intern is supported by a job coach who gradually eases them into a role and identifies the reasonable adjustments that need to be made to help them carry out their duties. For example, for those who find multi-tasking difficult, the job coach will help the young person write a list of tasks and work out the best order in which to do them. For others who find it hard speaking on the phone, the job coach will write a script and then model how best to answer the phone. Or for those who find it difficult finding their way around a large site, the job coach will create a map for them. In most cases, these reasonable adjustments are very simple and small but they make a world of difference to those with SEND. They really are the key to enabling the intern to carry out the task at all.
Third, families need to share their child’s desire to get a job. At Project SEARCH, we’ve found that the enduring support of our parents and guardians is key to our interns’ success. Whilst job coaches can inspire and encourage, it is families that can really strengthen a young person’s resolve – particularly when they face challenges created by new environments and new routines. The more families can encourage them, the more determined the young person is to overcome challenges and reach their goals. Likewise, families can help to reinforce the development of important independent skills that are nurtured during workplace training. By encouraging their child to make their own breakfast and get themselves ready for the day, families can help to get them in the right mindset for the day ahead.
But the real secret behind excellent employability training for those with SEND is to raise their aspirations, give them the confidence to leave their comfort zone and show them that they can succeed. And this can only be achieved by putting them in real workplace situations.
Real jobs, kick starting careers
All of our interns carry out real jobs and are treated like full members of the team. We don’t create specific jobs for our interns; they do the jobs that are already there and need doing – and they do them well. Their contribution is greatly valued by their teams and this in turn has such an impact on their confidence. To know that they are making a positive contribution that is valued by others does wonders for their sense of self worth. And more than this, for those young people with autism who have amazing attention to detail and work with great accuracy, they astound their team members who praise their work, give them extra responsibilities and thank them. For many, they have never received this sort of praise before. When at school, they were always treated as ‘other’ but in the world of work they are suddenly treated as just another member of the team and no one sees their disability; all they see is ability because they can do the tasks that they have been set.
So at the end of their year-long employability training, with their confidence and aspirations rightly sky high, interns are not only ready for work, they are raring to go and kick-start their careers.