Liam, 18, who has learning disabilities, had always been told by family members that he would never find work. It was upsetting to hear but, with 95% of people with learning disabilities unemployed, not an unreasonable assumption. When he secured a job planting trees for a conservation charity, he was so happy he burst into tears.
Liam got his job thanks to an unusual training and employment scheme set up by an award-winning special educational needs and disabilities (Send) school, Market Field in Elmstead, Essex. The scheme seeks to address the woeful employment prospects for the school’s graduates. Autistic people and people with ADHD and learning disabilities struggle to find work throughout the UK, but especially so in deprived rural areas such as east Essex.
For Liam, the job has boosted his self-esteem as well as his finances. “I like being out and about, I like working. The job means a lot,” he said. “I’ve got used to everyone else, I wouldn’t want to work with other people because they wouldn’t understand me.”
Liam spent his first pay packet buying Christmas presents for his family, and he plans to use the next one to take his girlfriend out for dinner. Although he was buffeted by a bitter Essex wind while he planted a row of hawthorn trees on a cold day in February, the pride in his work was visible.
Naomi Andrews, who runs the project on behalf of the school, works with local conservation organisations to arrange the placements and salaries for the students, and provides extra support and training to convince employers that they need not fear hiring people with Send.
“Employers expect people with special needs to volunteer. But it’s demoralising. Most of these guys never thought they’d work,” she said.
The results have been impressive. Last winter the team planted 60,800 trees, mostly working with Big Green Planet, a charity that restores hedgerows to improve local wildlife populations. The pupils describe their shifts as the highlight of their week, enthusiasm that has not gone unnoticed by the charity, which said their tenacity and good humour surpassed that of contract workers.
The project is small for now, with seven pupils employed this year and 12 pencilled in for next year. But the school is busy setting up Market Field farm, which will open to visitors in August 2023. It will be entirely staffed by 70 pupils and school leavers, equipping them with valuable horticulture and hospitality skills to improve their employment prospects, as well as a salary, and aims to become the first commercially self-sustaining Send employment scheme in a rural area. There are plans to continue growing in years to come.
As part of the innovative model, the £1.5m cost of the farm’s buildings, 2.5 hectares (six acres) of land and infrastructure are funded by developers looking to take advantage of rapidly growing demand for housing in the area. The arrangement is mutually beneficial because in order to build new plots, developers have to demonstrate a positive impact on the local community under their section 106 agreement.
Gary Smith, the executive head for the Hope Learning Community, which runs Market Field school, sees the project as a grassroots attempt to fill a policy vacuum in government around getting school leavers with Send into work.
Surprised by an absence of hard data on the employment destinations of Send pupils, and how “ineffective” the small number of existing schemes are, and after a string of unsuccessful meetings with government officials, Smith realised that “nothing was going to happen unless we made it happen”.
His determination is the result of watching pupils thrive at his school, then leave and spend years in their bedrooms, with about nine in 10 unable to find work due to stigma and a lack of awareness from employers about the skills they can bring. Getting his school leavers into work would also free family members from caring responsibilities, and reduce reliance on unemployment benefits.
“Their lives are shattered. I’ve seen so many lives that could have been different,” he said.
A government spokesperson said the national disability strategy and new investment in a supported internship programme were “improving outcomes for young people with special educational needs”, while a multibillion-pound plan for jobs aimed to help “more disabled jobseekers to find, retain and progress in fulfilling work” through specialist programmes and support from work coaches and disability employment advisers.