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Supporting Young Workers With SEND Through The Crisis

Claire Cookson, the CEO of DFN Project SEARCH, discusses how young people with learning disabilities have stepped into key worker roles for Local Authorities during the Covid-19 Pandemic, and how the period can act as a springboard for long-term change and more fairness and equality in society.

The pandemic has certainly pushed us out of our comfort zones and changed the way we live our lives.

Change can be challenging and disruptive, however the UK Government’s lockdown has taught us that we can adapt very quickly and bring ideas and ingenuity that ultimately improve performance and the way we work.

As one of the country’s leading transition to work programmes for students with learning disabilities and autism, we operate 69 internationally recognised programmes across the UK, Ireland and Iberia. With a local authority involved in every partnership, we aim to bring more fairness and equality in society.

When lockdown was implemented our interns had to work from home, bringing uncertainty to many young people well on their pathway to employability and our programme partners throughout the country.

Despite the disruption, we responded quickly, positively and in so many ways we have never felt more connected as a movement and organisation.

Our interns have had great support from our partners and job coaches, everyone has worked so hard to ensure that interns didn’t don’t lose the skills they have worked so hard to gain.

Our responsive approach has had a huge impact on our culture, bringing our stakeholder community together and driving collaboration to ensure that young people on DFN Project SEARCH supported internships stay on their journey to full time, integrated, competitive employment.

The aim of DFN Project SEARCH is to foster and develop the skills of students with learning disabilities and autism and provide them with a pathway to integrated competitive employment.

Nine local authorities in the UK are not only involved as champions of transition but have also demonstrated excellent community leadership and embraced the prestigious role of being our host employer as part of their commitment to changing the lives of young people.

DFN Project SEARCH offers local authority children’s’ services SEND teams the best evidenced-based programme to help young people with learning disabilities and autism transition from education to employment.

By partnering with us, local authority managers and commissioners in the SEND team will also support adult social care departments and support public health initiatives in the long-term too.

One of the things that I am particularly proud of during this time is the number of DFN Project SEARCH graduates who have been working in and securing key worker roles with local authorities during the crisis.

There are so many inspiring stories that challenge the social hierarchy and force us to re-assess what we consider key and essential roles to be.

One amazing story is that of James McCafferty who graduated through our programme with Renfrewshire Council in Scotland and carried-out a number of outdoor work placements at the Household Waste Recycling Centres.

James secured a role as seasonal street scene worker, however when the Pandemic took effect he was asked if he could be redeployed into working with the waste refuse team.

His job coach told me how James called him to tell him that he had secured his dream job and has been undertaking overtime during lockdown, showing his dedication and impact in a key role for the progressive local authority.

A further example of our graduates working in frontline roles is with Blackpool Council. We have partnered with the local authority for over seven years, leading to 90 students graduating through the scheme.

With regular cleaning vital to reducing the spread of the infection, Ann-Marie has played a big part in helping Blackpool Transport protect the health and safety of its staff and customers during the Pandemic. She has been incredible and it has been very inspiring to learn that during this time Ann-Marie has moved into her first flat on her own, which is truly life changing for her and shows how our programme is bringing independence for young people with learning disabilities.

I’m pleased to add that Blackpool Council’s seven arms-length companies have committed to supporting our 2020 September intake which will see students in frontline roles during their work placement rotations.

We also have the story of Craig Borwick at The City of Edinburgh Council who has been preparing food boxes and parcels for vulnerable people across the city.

Craig secured a Catering Assistant role in the staff canteen at The City of Edinburgh Council in April 2018 following a successful internship.

During the Covid-19 Lockdown period, Craig has been working to create food parcels for residents of the city who are shielded groups and at higher clinical risk, receiving several letters from appreciative family members.

Now that lockdown has eased, Craig will now be helping to prepare packed lunches for pupils returning to school./p>

Our interns have certainly risen to the challenge in frontline roles and continue to do amazing work across local authorities.

Their work ethic has shone through and they have shown themselves to be able to understand and adhere to new ways of working and follow stringent health and safety guidelines.

The success they are having is testament to the effectiveness of our pioneering transition to work programme which equips our interns with so many employability skills for jobs that are making a difference to the country in a time of crisis.

These developments and progress are certainly working to create a greater awareness of young people going through supported internships and the value they can bring to society.

Society is now beginning to better understand the value that people with learning disabilities and autism can bring to the workplace and we now have a huge opportunity to transform workplace culture throughout the country and drive long-term change.

Our job now is to work collaboratively with local and national Government, business and educators and to give these talented young people further hope and the chance to fulfil their potential.

As a life-long champion of young people with learning disabilities, I think it would be monumental to look back on 2020 as a landmark moment of real progress in helping all young people with learning disabilities and autism secure better learning provision and access to long-term paid employment.

Let’s not miss this opportunity to bring a more fair and inclusive society for all.