Why Work Experience?

Only one in six people with severe learning disabilities are in work (Mencap). Last year, 100% of our interns and 60% of our graduating students as a whole left Royal College Manchester with a job. This work experience week, we're highlighting how we help young adults with complex learning disabilities and additional communication needs find work.

For students in our school, work experience is an important part of the curriculum. In Year 10, students start a series of vocational 'tasters' - sessions meant to introduce students to the different kinds of jobs. Students and their families help to come up with ideas for different sessions - in the past, we've had vehicle enthusiasts learn about jobs car washing and maintaining bikes and students who like to get outside learn about gardening. But we should also think creatively about how student's skills and interests could match up well to different jobs - for one young man who liked organising things, trying work experience recycling different kinds of rubbish proved to be hugely motivating. Another student loves meeting new people and learned about customer service working in the school cafe.

Post-16 students may already have some ideas about the kind of work they like to do, and in Years 12-14 they focus on learning the skills they will need. Knowing how to handle money, make and use shopping lists, communicate with people they don't know or using public transport to get around can make a big difference to their success in work! They continue to take part in vocational tasters as well as work experience placements in the local community.

At Royal College Manchester, we're even more ambitious about employment. A few years ago, the college set themselves a target to help 40% of their leavers find work - still more than 6 times the numbers of people with SLD in work! As well as the work experience (both on site and in the community) an adapted supported internship programme was developed - a small group of students who need the structure of a workplace to put their skills into practice are given the opportunity to show just what they can do to several different employers. Our interns have taken on gardening and litter picking duties in a park, cleaned and set up function rooms for events at a community centre, delivered food and cleared tables in canteens and collated paperwork in offices!

This work experience doesn't just benefit our students: because our students were able to take on tasks like ironing, laundry, setting up furniture and clearing it away, the community centre had more capacity and were able to hold more events. One work experience placement helped a local business struggling to fix a computer error - a student took on the task of entering the correct customer information and checking it against the records, and her work saved the business from having to find a costly or time-consuming solution. Another group of students took on the task of delivering drinks to patients on a hospital ward, saving staff time and giving the patients a chance to meet someone new.

This work is made possible through the strong partnerships we have with local employers. To help our students make informed choices about their future, we want them to be able to access as wide a variety of placements as possible - and, whether that's on a farm, in a canteen or cafe, volunteering in a local foodbank, in a park, a shop, a community centre or a warehouse, that's exactly what we do.

Job-carved roles are just one solution for people with more complex needs. For many of our students, working full time hours would be a challenge - but that doesn't mean they can't make meaningful contributions in smaller chunks of time. One of our former college students was delighted to take on a role delivering internal mail at her office for a few hours a week when she graduated from college, and her new employer was delighted to see how her colleagues had so much more time when the mail collation and delivery was handled by someone else.

It's a solution that Seashell have implemented too, to great success - we have several members of staff with different teams who also have complex needs. Some are ex-students, and have taken great pleasure in seeing how things change over the years! One of the great benefits is that students can see for themselves that people with learning disabilities are welcome, valued and respected members of staff who have their own skills and contributions to the smooth running of the workplace - and that they can achieve the same.

A key development was the United Way funding for our job coach who works with students to help them make decisions about work, prepare CVs, understand how job interviews work (although many of our students would struggle with a traditional sit-down question and answer interview, employers are increasingly open to working interviews which let our students show how they would perform the tasks themselves) and what the expectations are in their workplace. The United Way funding allows our job coach to work with each student after they leave the college for six months, making sure that the transition into work is successful and the support - around transport, PAs, direct payments and so on - is there to help students remain in work.

Having a job of your own, earning money, being respected for the contributions you make and being more independent are all fantastic outcomes for our students and we are determined to keep growing our offer - getting more students, with more complex needs, the opportunities and skills they need to find work.