24-Nov-22 | News

Thought Leadership: Claire Cookson


Chief Executive Officer of the DFN Foundation and DFN Project SEARCH, Claire Cookson is an experienced senior leader with an extensive background in education. She brings a strong understanding of collaborating with businesses, educators, and Local Authorities to develop employability outcomes for learners with special educational needs and disabilities.

Article by Claire Cookson, CEO DFN Project SEARCH

We all strive for a stable job and financial security. For some people that has been harder than others. Since the pandemic it has been especially difficult for young adults to secure work due to the competition. For young people with a learning disability or autism spectrum condition it’s even harder.

Only 5.1% of people with a learning disability in England known to local authorities are in secure paid employment, compared to 80% of their peers. That is a shocking statistic and means an astonishing 95% face a future on benefits, which can lead to low self-esteem, mental health challenges and social isolation.

Young, ambitious adults in this community who can offer employers so much are being prevented from accessing jobs due to stigma, prejudice, or inadequate support. Their skills and talents too often go unrecognised or are overlooked by society.

While there have been welcome advancements in DEI in the workplace, I often feel disappointed that disability is one area of diversity where progress has been slow. As a society we are too low aiming for people with a learning disability. At the same time there is a fear factor among employers of ‘getting it wrong’ in hiring young adults with a learning disability.

It doesn’t need to be like that. At DFN Project SEARCH we challenge misconceptions and enable young adults with a learning disability or autism spectrum condition, or both, to reach their full potential through employment. Our team works with so many brilliant young people who will make some of the best employees, but just need the opportunity.

We provide a fully immersive year-long work-based programme for young adults in their last year of education. The entire aim is to help transition young adults into full time paid employment, paid a prevailing wage in an integrated setting on a non-seasonal contract – we don’t accept anything less.

We work with major organisations and some of the largest employers in the country, including our partners at Hilton, Marriott Hotels, universities, Next Distribution and many NHS Trusts. In total, we have over 120 partner sites across the UK that have helped almost 2,000 young adults into fulltime jobs. We currently serve around 1000 young people every year through our programmes which will continue to grow as we increase the number of partner sites. Our data proves that our intervention works. Around 60% of interns secure full-time work paid the prevailing wage – well beyond the national average of 5%.

At the end of last month we launched the #InclusionRevolution campaign to encourage UK businesses to recognise the social and economic value in employing young adults with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND). The campaign aims to support 10,000 young adults between 18 – 25 years old with SEND in the UK into paid employment by 2030.

There are multiple studies, including our own extensive data, to highlight the significant benefits of hiring someone with a learning disability to both the individual and the employer, not to mention wider society and the economy.

For young people with disability challenges, being in employment improves their health and wellbeing. It gives them a sense of purpose, identity and status, and contributes to the aggregate of social capital. You can’t put a price on enabling someone to feel valued, or the sense of identity that comes through financial and emotional independence. When I speak to the interns who go through our programme the message I hear time and again is that paid work boosts confidence. One person recently told me that before they took part in the programme they were invisible, but when you have a job and are in the workplace you are part of society and have a role. They no longer feel invisible.

For businesses and organisations, employing people with a learning disability makes good business and financial sense. Studies show that people with a learning disability stay in their jobs 3.5 times longer than their non-disabled co-workers. They also show that a high proportion of employees with a disability have their job performance rated as average or above. We also know they are cultural changers. We hear from host employers working DFN Project SEARCH interns that productivity goes up, staff satisfaction goes up, people start disclosing their own hidden disability because they feel they are working for an ethical organisation, and in some places there can be a change in recruitment style and inclusivity practices.

Earlier this year, the ONS released a staggering figure that there were over 1.3 million job vacancies in the UK. Some of these roles could be filled by the estimated one million people with special educational needs and disabilities who are out of work.

This confirms how important and urgent this work is. We are looking for a step-change in inclusive employment practices where misconceptions and stigma are challenged and overcome, and where UK businesses to recognise the social and economic value in employing young adults with Special Educational Needs and Disability.

There is a huge untapped pool of talent out there and it’s time we stopped wasting it.

For more information about the DFN Project SEARCH supported internship programme visit www.dfnprojectsearch.org