This new curriculum will focus on employability


Debbie Gerring discusses the new program she is using to help her students become more employable.

Debbie Gerring is headteacher of St Martins, a special school in Derby. She knows her pupils are going to struggle to get and keep a job once they leave school. Many of them are capable, but statistics show that they will have a bleak future if they are not helped along the way.According to local employment figures, only 3.8% of young people with SEND in Derby will go on to employment. However, this not just a local problem. In 2019, around 50% of disabled people had a job, compared with just over 80% of people without a disability. People with disabilities in the workforce are more likely to be in part-time posts or entry level positions. These jobs pay less and are often temporary or insecure. Debbie is keen to break the mould and ensure that her young people are attractive candidates for employers. ‘Our pupils will generally finish school with entry level 2 or 3 qualifications and for most jobs this is not good enough. In fact, their skills make them capable of doing many jobs if only they could bypass the ‘gatekeeping’ qualification.’

The SHAPE curriculum, created by St. Martins, aims to help students do just that. Five key elements run through all the learning and experiences that take place both within school and the wider community; Safety, Health & happiness, Aspiration & achievement, Positive contribution and Enterprise. There is a continual focus on the ‘soft skills’ that employers require and which are often not covered in mainstream schools including self-management, initiative, teamwork, resilience and independence.

Careers education

Careers education is a collaborative process in the SHAPE program. Young people learn about the world of work and what employers expect from them.  Local companies work with staff at the school to make their usual menu of careers activities meaningful and realistic to young people with SEND.  For example, the pupils have taken part in a Mission to Mars challenge with Rolls-Royce. This included using programmable LEGO robot kits to create products to collect ice from the Mars polar regions and turn it into fresh drinking water. Pupils drew on their knowledge of science and put their design & technology skills into practice. Rolls-Royce worked with the school to adapt some aspects of the programme so they were accessible to pupils with SEND.

Careers and enterprise days

The program also contains a version of Dragons Den, known as ‘enterprise days’, where representatives from local businesses set a challenge and pupils are divided into teams to complete the task and present their ideas. This works well to help pupils become used to working with different people and organisations, and to build their communication, problem-solving and team-working skills.

Careers days include motivational talks, introductions to companies, mock interviews and CV writing. Often pupils have specific practical tasks to complete; Jury’s Inn Hotel challenged pupils to put covers on duvets and a local hotel invited pupils to their restaurant to help make and serve an afternoon tea.  Back at school, the pupils developed their own afternoon tea with the hotel staff as guests.

Post-16 vocational provision

Horizons is a kind of sixth form college that helps students become more self-reliant and take steps towards independent living and employment. Horizons is based in the local market in Derby town centre and is the base for work placements, further education preparation courses and for students to develop life and employability skills. These might include independent travel, handling money, and improving spoken communication and social skills.

Students also work on their enterprise skills in the centre’s fully-operational print business where they produce leaflets, design logos and make and sell key rings and other items. Supporting the running of a business develops the students’ key skills such as money management, creativity and customer service.  One pupil, Mohammed,  says; ‘People call up and ask questions and we have to deal with that. We learn problem-solving skills trying to work out how to deal with their inquiry.’

Other students work with local employers and community groups. One project with a local building company gave students the chance to plan, design and develop allotments in the city. This was a source of great pride as families and friends could see the finished allotments and share in their achievements.

A group of young disabled people, wearing uniforms and standing in a canteen

Royal Derby Hospital

DFN Project Search is an international programme of supported internships for young people with learning disabilities. It started in Cincinnati and is relatively new in the UK.

In September 2019, a group of nine young interns started the one-year programme at Royal Derby Hospital, where they take part in three 10-week placements in different departments across the hospital, including the canteen, car parking, administration, as porters, in patient catering and pathology. They are supported by a team mentor.

The interns work in their department from 10am – 3pm and spend an hour every morning learning about issues such as workplace conduct and health and safety. At the end of the day the interns take part in a debrief session where they can discuss successes, identify the skills they have been developing in their working day, and highlight any areas where they need help. There is plenty of support: the DFN Project Search co-ordinator talks to the interns’ managers and if there are any concerns these may be dealt with in specific sessions in the classroom. During each placement, the on-site tutor meets formally with the manager and parents.

The results have been very encouraging so far, and the pupils are continually encouraged to push boundaries, try new things and develop themselves.

Alex, an intern with a speech impairment, had a placement in the canteen, helping to prepare the food and serve staff lunches. His interpreter explains that since starting in his role, the young intern’s confidence has grown immensely.

Impact on Royal Derby Hospital

Helping the interns to become more confident and self-sufficient has raised awareness of accessibility and provided an excellent model for existing training and staff development practices. A Learning & Development Manager at Royal Derby Hospital said: ‘It has helped me to consider aspects of my own tutorial style. Seeing the adaptations made to help the interns gain understanding, I have applied these to my everyday training systems. As a business we have looked at how we can integrate staff and support them in their working life whether or not they have special educational needs.’

The project is very new but the hospital is hoping that many of the young people will move on to permanent jobs at the hospital. Despite the Covid-19 crisis, one has already taken up a job at the hospital with the Receipts and Distribution Team. The project has been successful in other NHS Trusts and at Barts Healthcare, where 52% of students who completed the internship went on to secure paid employment. Here’s hoping that the interns at Royal Derby Hospital have the same success.

Young people’s names have been changed in this article.

Katherine Emms
Author: Katherine Emms

Katherine Emms
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Katherine Emms is a Researcher at the Edge Foundation. Edge is an independent education charity dedicated to shaping the future of education, ensuring a broad and engaging curriculum enables all young people to fulfil their potential.


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