Case study: Careers and SEN pupils

Written by: Annie Grant | Published:
Careers boost: Intern Sam works with mentor Satvinder Paik in Biomedical Engineering at Whipps Cross Hospital in London

Making a successful transition from school to paid employment can be a challenge for students with SEN. Annie Grant visits a project that is helping them to break into the world of work

“Very few children with special educational needs get asked ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’”

The words of Ellen Atkinson, from Preparing for Adulthood, speaking to teachers at a recent event hosted by special needs association nasen.

She continued: “They rarely get work experience and when they do, it happens within the school setting. They don’t go out into the real world of work. We need to think about life outcomes, and change our perceptions of what these young people can achieve.”

In the London Borough of Waltham Forest, a post-16 transition initiative called Project SEARCH aims to help do just that.

Project SEARCH was started in Cincinnati, USA, with the aim of securing employment for young people with disabilities.

Erin Riehle, director of the emergency department at a children’s hospital, decided it was possible to train young people with learning difficulties to fill some of the entry level positions in her department. After discussing her ideas with a local educational establishment, Project SEARCH was born and has since expanded to more than 200 sites across the USA, Canada, Australia and the UK.

Project SEARCH in London

Eight years ago Elaine Colquhoun, principal of Whitefield School and Centre, a special school in Walthamstow, visited Project SEARCH in Cincinnati.

“She came back filled with enthusiasm about the project and how it could be appropriate for students at Whitefield,” explained Jamie Bargeman, Whitefield’s Project SEARCH instructor.

“Before Project SEARCH, employment for our students just wasn’t on the agenda. We had routes into residential and community-based placements and into college, but no direct route into paid work.”

In September 2013, after a substantial period of planning with the local council and Barts Health Trust, Whitefield School launched their own Project SEARCH at nearby Whipps Cross Hospital.

The initiative replaces the last year of SEN students’ three post-16 years at school. Instead of attending school, they join the year-long programme and are based at Whipps Cross Hospital.

The hospital provides a dedicated classroom for the project and, to meet the education and training needs of the young people (referred to as interns), the project is staffed by teacher Mr Bargeman from Whitefield School, and job coach Lucy Anson-Golding.


Project SEARCH interns start at the hospital on the same day in September as their peers return to school. The first three weeks are spent inducting them into the workplace, providing an opportunity for the job coaches to get to know the interns a little better, to find out their strengths and challenges and begin to determine the type of work that they might be interested in experiencing during the project.

“We’ve put together an induction programme that maps onto what the Barts Health Trust provides for their staff,” explained Mr Bargeman. “It covers things like confidentiality, health and safety, infection control, safe lifting and handling, as well as the values of the Trust and what it expects from employees, but it is all delivered in a way which is appropriate and at the right level for our young people.”

Interns then undertake three 10-week work rotations in different departments, during which they are mentored by a member of hospital staff.

“We call it ‘natural support’ from a colleague with the skills to take the young person under their wing and provide that one-to-one support that a lot of them will need,” explains Mr Bargeman.

Relationships with hospital departments are still developing and an important part of the Project SEARCH team’s work is opening up new opportunities for interns.

“One of the best bits of the job is educating people department by department,” said Ms Anson-Golding. “For instance, there are young lads in portering who have probably never had much exposure to people with special needs but when they support one of our interns, it changes their attitudes. It has such a positive impact.”

Developing employment skills

Interns spend from 10am until 2:30pm in their rotation placements, but first thing in the morning and for the last hour of the day they are back in the classroom, helping them prepare for the day ahead and de-brief at the end to reflect on what they have learnt and their achievements.

In the morning, interns work on their social skills. “We talk about current affairs so they have something to discuss in those water-cooler moments,” explained Mr Bargeman, “and the departments often comment on how polite and sociable they are.

“If an employability issue arises during the day, then we’ll try to deal with it there and then. It can be those soft skills that let an intern down and we don’t want that to be a reason for them losing a job in the future.”

Finding a job

During the year, project staff hold half-termly employment planning meetings attended by interns, their families and other key members of their support networks.

“We find out the kind of job the young person really wants to do and put together an employment route strategy plan which also informs where they will be placed for their second and third rotation,” explained Ms Anson-Golding.

By January, the job coach role begins to take on a new focus: “I move into ‘jobs-jobs-jobs’ mode,” she added.

Research by Project SEARCH in the USA suggests that about a third of interns usually gain employment at the host business, with others needing to find employment elsewhere, using the skills they learn from the internship experiences.

Ms Anson-Golding researches job opportunities on behalf of the interns and helps them to apply for those that are suitable. She builds relationships with recruitment managers, contacting them during the recruitment process to tell them a little more about the intern who will be applying.

“If they meet the job criteria and have declared a disability, they should be guaranteed an interview,” she explained. “It’s what we’re aiming for – getting them to a point where they can be interviewed competitively, alongside other candidates.

“We had five interns on the programme last year and, with the help of the Project SEARCH team and our colleagues at the Barts Health Trust, all five of them have got paid work,” said Mr Bargeman. “That is incredible and shows this programme works.”

Post-employment support

The role of the job coach continues for at least six months after project SEARCH “graduates” leave the programme and move into their first jobs.

“It’s the end of one journey and the beginning of another,” said Ms Anson-Golding.

“The follow-on support we provide helps them to make that transition successfully, but we try to draw back as early as we can because we don’t want the organisations to become dependent on our support.”

  • Annie Grant is from special needs association nasen. Visit

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