An uplifting social alliance

By Mark Whitehead | 26 March 2024

While politicians and policy-makers were hurrying through the corridors and committee rooms at the Houses of Parliament, a group of public and private sector employers were meeting to consider an issue of great importance to many thousands of young adults – how more people with a learning disability or autism could be involved in the world of work.

The round table discussion at Portcullis House, where many MPs have their offices, was timed to mark National Supported Internship Day, the first national celebration of its kind in the UK, launched in 2023 and held every year on 27 March.

The organisation behind the day and the round table event was DFN Project SEARCH, which partners with organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors to create supported employment internships for young people in their last year of education, helping them to take positive first steps into the world of work.

The supported internship scheme runs over an academic year. Supported internships are a programme that focuses on getting young people into the heart of employment, by doing jobs. They spend the majority of their time embedding within the workplace, supported by trained job coaches, a mentor within the business and a tutor who enriches this within the classroom.

It is a huge challenge, but also a huge opportunity: round table participants were reminded that while there are more than a million young people in the UK with a learning disability, only 4.8% of adults with a learning disability who are known to their local authority are in paid work.

The round table heard that people with a learning disability are the most excluded groups in the workforce and as a result experience all of the negative impacts of unemployment, including social isolation, poor physical and mental health and can expect to live 20 years less than those without a learning disability even when that disability is categorised as mild.

A recent survey found 86% of people with a learning disability want to work and it is local authorities who can help people realise that ambition. DFN Project SEARCH and its partners are bucking the trend. More than 60% of those undertaking the programme with learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions graduate into full-time paid employment and an overall 70% gain jobs in total. The programme now has 153 local partnerships across the UK, with more than 1,000 young people taking part each year, learning their skills in organisations in the private and public sectors, including several local authorities.

Supported internships, the meeting heard, are the perfect way to support young people who are motivated to work, to have the opportunity to layer their strengths during a 12-month period, while also building up the confidence of employers. Accessing a good career through supported internships is the best way to improve young people’s life chances across all areas, with an investment now, saving a lifetime of support from elsewhere within the system.

As the round table was told by one of the organisers: ‘We are all keen that the way we talk about this is that we see the move into employment as being about creating a better life for the young person, entirely in line with what they want.

‘We know unemployment is bad for your financial, physical, mental and emotional health and for young adults with a learning disability and young autistic adults, it can be even more of an issue.’

There are other risks supported internships could safeguard against for the future – for example, more than 50% of the prison population is neurodiverse.

Supported internships are hugely beneficial beyond the impact on the young people alone – providing positive impact to the wider workforce who get to work alongside them. At a time when councils have huge pressures around recruitment and retention this approach supports the well-being of all involved. One round table participant reported: ‘Our mentors are proud to have interns as part of our teams, they are a joy to work with. They are super keen to work and very enthusiastic about the jobs that they do. It can make you sit up and appreciate just how fortunate we are to be in work.’

Another round table participant reported: ‘Many of our staff come to really like the interns and their approach to life and it often has a really positive effect on morale.

‘Being part of Project SEARCH generates greater teamwork, everyone takes responsibility, actively seeking to help the young people. Our mentors see it as a badge of honour and take pride in the development of the students in their charge.’

Some of the benefits are less obvious but nonetheless very real. The round table heard how a member of an internship scheme working in a packing department mastered the workplace protocols extremely conscientiously. But they noticed others were not doing the same. This quickly led to managers ensuring health and safety and other measures were strengthened, helping make sure the whole workforce was better protected.

For employers, a supported internship scheme brings clear business benefits. It can help them better reflect the diversity in their communities, connecting better with customers and stakeholders. It helps secure the best talent, enhance brand and reputation and bring innovative thinking into their organisations. And supported interns, the round table heard, tend to stay in their jobs longer than the average employee, growing their skills and talents all the time.

One participant summarised: ‘It’s not just about corporate responsibility and doing the right thing. These young people are a valued talent pool of reliable, highly engaged, loyal staff. It’s an incredibly rich talent pool.’

Interns in the scheme remain on roll with their school or college but are based at a host employer where they participate in department rotations throughout the year, receiving 800 hours of skills acquisition, while growing in confidence and competence.

They enjoy the support of a network consisting of an onsite teacher and a full-time employment specialist, plus the intern’s family who create a joined-up learning environment and employment goal.

Together the team deliver the support the intern needs for their successful transition from education to work through continuous feedback.

DFN Project SEARCH’s goal over the next decade is to get 20,000 young adults into paid employment, which would be transformative for them, their families and the community.

The Department for Education recently commissioned DFN Project SEARCH along with the National Development Team for Inclusion and the British Association of Supported Employment, working under the umbrella Internships Work, to help them realise their ambition to double the number of supported internships.

The aim is to see all local authorities getting behind the scheme – if a young person can move into paid employment once their supported internship ends, their Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) may not be needed for the longer-term because they can expect to have a much better future.

Research shows that the benefits of paid work are transformational, enabling young adults with a learning disability or autism spectrum condition or both to feel valued, integrate with their community and achieve financial, emotional and social independence.

There are also clear economic benefits. It is estimated that each young person with a learning disability who is employed could save on average £14,000 per year for local authorities which would otherwise be a cost to the education system with no real long-term beneficial outcome.

When in paid employment, a young person with a learning disability and/or autism will not only benefit themselves and their families but could also save taxpayers huge costs. Early employment develops skills and experience that will help them to continue employed throughout their life, dispensing with their need for Universal Credit and other benefits.

Interns can be as young as 17 when they start the programme and their outcomes are at least as high as those of older interns.

The round table noted that there are always improvements to be made. ‘We need to be more creative around labour and new talent’, one participant said. ‘We need to do more to unpick tasks and create the right opportunities. What meaningful roles can we create for the future? What positions are needed now?’

And there is a further challenge. Since the removal of the Adult Social Care Outcomes Framework, employment outcomes in some areas have been impacted, with supported employment opportunities being reduced or even closed altogether. However, to ensure local areas get the most out of the investment from internships work, it is critical local authorities continue to invest in good quality supported employment. That way, young people can not only enter into the labour market, but sustain good quality careers – creating more opportunities for others to do so in the future.

With Department for Work and Pensions Universal Support coming down the track, councils have the opportunity to retain and invest in the supported employment infrastructure needed to make this a success.

The opportunities offered by supported internships are clear. The round table heard a plea to local authorities to grasp the benefits of the model: ‘We need senior leaders within local authorities to continue to invest in an evidence-based model, improving the lives of their residents, effectively using education funding to prepare people for a great life with meaningful work, reducing the lifelong bill for adult social care, improving health outcomes, enabling young people and their parents to be economically active within local communities and supporting a largely untapped talent pipeline to meet the local economic needs of communities.’


Carmel McKeogh explains how the DFN Project SEARCH model operates as a ‘team of teams’ helping young people with a learning disability and/or autism transition into work

We are DFN Project SEARCH, a national charity changing the lives of young people with a learning disability and/or autism spectrum condition by supporting them into full-time employment.

Together with our community of partners we deliver supported internships – transition-to-work programmes – for young people in their final year of school or college, helping them make the positive transition to adulthood. We are:

  • Nationwide, but locally focused: more than 100 across the UK, with each site informed by the needs of the local community
  • Driven by data and impact: to date, we have supported more than 2,000 young people into internships, with on average 70% of graduates going on to permanent jobs
  • Partnership builders: through our impact-driven Project SEARCH model, we build programmes that benefit host employers, local authorities and educators around the needs of the young people we support
  • Aiming high: we aim to support 10,000 young people into employment by 2030.Our model involves surrounding young people with a community of support. That is why we operate as a team of teams, bringing together:
  • Local authorities
  • Education providers
  • Supported employment agencies
  • Employers from the public and private sectors.

We collaborate with partners who share the same ambition and passion as us: to build a more inclusive workplace and ensure all young people with a learning disability and autism can attain high-quality full-time employment in their local area and make the transition into productive adulthood.

Carmel McKeogh is DFN Project SEARCH director of operations

Round table participants

Alex Perkins, manager, workforce community engagement, Amazon

Donna Brown, managing director, healthcare, ISS

Kieran Watt, programme manager, NDTI (National Development Team for Inclusion)

Laura Davis, chief executive, BASE (British Association of Supported Employment)

Charlotte Ramsden, chief executive, Children and Families Trust Bradford

Andrew Attfield, associate director of public health, Barts NHS Trust

Angie Ridgewell, chief executive, Lancashire CC

Claire Cookson, chief executive, DFN Project SEARCH

Carmel McKeogh, director of operations, DFN Project SEARCH

Michael Burton, editorial director, The MJ (chair)

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