Schools struggling to offer work experience placements to students with SEND


College and school students with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) are missing out on vital work-related activities compared with their non-SEN and non-disabled peers, a new report shows.

Work experience and related activities in schools and colleges was commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) from NatCen Social Research and SQW.

The study’s overall aim was to consider the current provision and operational practice of work-related activities at schools and colleges in England following the publication of updated guidance for 16-19 study programmes in 2015. The guidance advocates a period of work experience, or a more extended work placement, as a core part of programmes for all post-16 students, whether following an academic or a technical curriculum, in order to support them in developing their work readiness.

‘Work-related activities’ include both ‘work experience inspiration activities’ and ‘work experience placements’. ‘Work experience inspiration activities’ include any exposure to work or working practice that does not involve a specific placement within a company; they can include employer talks, mini-enterprise activities, skills competitions, etc.

As part of the study staff responsible for work-related activities from 712 schools and colleges took part in a web-enabled telephone survey between 23 May and 1 August 2016. The survey was complemented by a series of in-depth interviews and focus groups.

The study found that all schools and colleges offered a wide range of work-related activities and that these usually included work experience placements. These were usually offered to students in Years 10-11 (90 per cent) and Years 12-13 (91 per cent).

However, in the case of students with SEND just 63 per cent of work experience coordinators reported that their school or college offered work-related activities. This was more common among colleges (82 per cent) than schools (66 per cent of schools without a sixth form and 58 per cent of schools with a sixth form). In the case of work experience placements it also found they ‘were far less likely to be offered to young people with SEND’.

Of the schools and colleges that offered work-related activities to students with SEN, just a quarter (26 per cent), offered their students Supported Internships (SIs). Supported Internships, also known as supported traineeships, are programmes designed to help young people, aged 16-24, with known learning disabilities (with a statement of Special Educational Needs, a Learning Difficulty Assessment or an Education, Health and Care plan) gain the skills they need to enter employment.

As with the wider offer to SEND students, colleges were significantly more likely than schools to offer SIs (56 per cent of colleges, compared to 21 per cent of schools with and without a sixth form).

According to the report a key issue for staff facilitating work experience placements for young people with SEND was ‘identifying an appropriate/ accessible sector and occupation’. In addition to problems of placement availability some work experience coordinators reported issues with student take-up. In the case of SIs, for example, just 58 per cent of students offered these took them up compared with 88 per cent of students offered placements in Years 10-11 and 72 per cent offered placements in Years 12-13. The most frequent reasons given for students not taking up SIs were ‘Lack of confidence’, ‘Fear of the unknown’ and ‘Not being work ready’.


Supported Internships, also known as supported traineeships, are programmes designed to help young people, aged 16-24.

On a more positive note interviewees suggested a number of specific steps that could be taken to help students with SEND access placements. These included:

  • Fostering good communication between the student, their parents/ carers, the SEND coordinator, the broker and the employer, from the outset.
  • Discussion between staff, students and their parents/ carers to establish the appropriate level of disclosure. This was viewed as valuable in ensuring students had appropriate employer support.
  • Undertaking extra health, safety and accessibility checks.
  • Arranging pre-meets and site tours, which were viewed as especially helpful for students with autism. Interviewees felt they helped to prepare students for the routine of the work experience placement so they would feel more confident about what would be involved.
  • Discussion of internal work experience placements as an option for students with higher levels of need. Schools and colleges were seen as better able to support these needs than an external employer. Typical internal work experience placements included working in a school or college kitchen, or at an on-site hair and beauty salon.
  • Reviewing the support measures available for students while on placements. This was viewed as especially important for young people with anxiety issues or more severe learning difficulties. Support measures might include a carer or teaching assistant accompanying the student, or arranging transport to and from the placement.

Responding to the report Huw Davies, Chief Executive of the British Association for Supported Employment (BASE) said:

BASE would like to see Supported Internships offered as a matter of course to students with SEND but internships are not going to be the answer for everyone. We need to see a whole system approach where schools carry out vocational profiling as part of the EHCP process and this informs work experience choices. This information and learning needs to be passed on to colleges so that they can build on earlier support rather than start from scratch again.

There needs to be other vocational routes into work and we welcome the changes to the apprenticeship system following the Maynard Review. Additionally, vocational study programmes need to be incorporating work experience to help develop the skills and motivation of individual students.

What’s as important as the availability and take-up of internships is the outcome for individuals. We have concerns that there is inadequate support for individuals on internships. We recommend that colleges and schools ensure that job coaches have the necessary skills to engage with and support employers effectively. It is unfair on Learning Support Assistants to arbitrarily reclassify them as Job Coaches without any training.

We also have concerns about the quality and relevance of placements. They should be external and not on-site placements within the college itself. Placements should reflect individual career ambitions and take account of the local labour market. They should be planned and regularly monitored on a partnership basis with employers.

We note the difficulties that schools and colleges have with engaging employers. We do not support the call for a national database of placements. We believe that the difficulties reflect a lack of experience and confidence in working with employers. This contact and communication is essential for post-16 providers and a national database risks deskilling education providers and limiting the range of experiences available to learners.


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Special World, from Inclusive Technology, is a free website linking 125,000 special education teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists in 150 countries. Special World readers and contributors work with children who have additional needs or special educational needs including those with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities.

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