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SEN/EHCP Work Placements “Lessons learned (thanks to Covid)”

SEN/EHCP Work Placements “Lessons learned (thanks to Covid)”

For an organisation whose mission is to help young people into the workplace, often against the odds, you can imagine how excited we were to start finding opportunities for students with behavioural and learning difficulties.

This inspired my own journey with Changing Education. I was able to see at first hand the extraordinary, positive impact that work placements could have on these students, and the vehicle it provided for their confidence levels.

What began as an experimental project, quickly grew wings. Soon we were able to provide extended work placements, courses about employability, and 70 hours of guided learning leading to a BTEC award in employability. The results were rewarding on so many levels, with students who had found learning challenging in so many ways now able to engage. In the process, we were able to reduce the number of young people not engaging in education, employment, or training (NEET).

One example was a student with high functioning anxiety. Let’s call him James.

James kept away from others at school, as he was anxious in groups. I managed to convince him to take some work experience at a local charity café. He was, understandably, frightened at the prospect.

But we worked together to get him started and identified jobs he could own. After a few sessions, he began to feel the green shoots of growing confidence. He was completing tasks without being prompted. Back at school teachers noticed him becoming more involved in lessons. He began to open up and even make jokes.

He proactively asked me if we could source his next placement as a painter and decorator. I went to visit and was overwhelmed to see him with his own seat in the brew room, initiating conversations. I saw him, student, painting a wall in the main corridor surrounded by strangers. He was unphased. This was a transformation. James didn’t just gain work experience; he gained new skills and an entire approach to life.

With many similar success stories behind us, in 2018, we developed a traineeship called ‘Project 25’. It was met with an explosion of interest and was soon being accessed by 27 Schools and over 250 students in all parts of the UK.

You can imagine what happened next. What started as a rumour that there was a new strain of flu in Wuhan, quickly became a grim reality for us all. And as the country shut down and the furlough scheme kicked-into action, few groups were hit as hard and fast as students with behavioural and learning difficulties.

Our programme had relied on them visiting places of work, accessing the classroom learning environment, attending school, and chatting to our staff. Sadly, like dominoes, each of those pillars fell in turn, to a point where we only had a single member of staff trying to keep the programme alive.

But where there’s a will there’s a way, and we fought back. The lifting of restrictions last summer allowed us to link-up with the Adelaide Trust to offer P25+. This allowed us to run employability sessions every week in school to discuss what these students would like to do, monitor how it was going, and practise valuable workplace skills.

As a reaction to the ‘new normal’, we substituted the BTEC Lessons with our own employability resources. The plan was to deliver the BTEC lessons in Term 2 and 3 when we hoped that the virus would be on the back foot!

We all know what happens to the best laid plans (!) but we did manage to keep going. Some schools still allowed us access within government guidelines and home visits were still allowed for the most vulnerable students. We were also able to facilitate a small percentage of work placements for students working with family members.

Since September the numbers have been small, but we have supported a dozen students in meeting the majority of the Gatsby Benchmarks by tailoring their learning. This has included topics from local market information to work place rights and equality. Each has been immensely satisfying for us and them. Compared to the numbers we achieved back in 2019, these may feel like relatively small footsteps, but they have shone incredibly brightly in these dark times.

As importantly, we have learned some crucial lessons for the post-pandemic world. For a start, in some cases, the new model actually increased student attendance and engagement. Virtual learning helped lower barriers of self-awareness and fears of being wrong. Students actively took part. The online provision also led to schools timetabling our employability sessions and this maximised attendance and allowed parents to join the sessions which has been a huge benefit.

Our fingers are now firmly crossed that we are through the crisis and that our provision will emerge stronger than before. There are definitely elements of the virtual model that suit the students in this programme, as there are across the wider student population. We will also add the eleven-week programme to give students the tools they need to understand the workplace and access content that will give them the confidence and the preparation to be ready to attend a work placement. Again, this has become clear to us during the lockdown.

All-in-all, it isn’t a year I wouldn’t have chosen for so many reasons, but I feel that the students with learning and behavioural difficulties about whom I care so passionately, will now have a better programme, a better understanding of the world of work, and will be better prepared for adult life. We will be able to help many more students like James. And I couldn’t ask for any more than that.

Author: Craig Blount (Project 25 Work Placement Manager for the Changing Education Group)

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