Unlocking NHS pathways for everyone

UNISON’s Bridges to Learning project is helping internees with learning disabilities, difficulties and autism as they progress through the supported internship and work experience programme Project Choice in Newcastle.

UNISON project supports younger workers

Funded by Health Education England (HEE), Project Choice is designed to help young adults with learning difficulties between the ages of 16 and 24 gain the skills and work experience they need to secure permanent jobs.

Every September, 12 young people join The Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust programme, which was recognised with the workforce award in the Health Service Journal (HSJ) Awards in 2015.

Bridges to Learning Project Co-ordinator John Wears, who is also chair of the disability staff network at the Trust, has been involved with the programme over the past two years.

Bridges to Learning is a unique partnership between public services union UNISON, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and The Open University (OU) that helps public service workers in the north-east gain the skills and qualifications they need to develop at work. John has been on full-time secondment to the project since it launched nine years ago.

As well as his own personal experience (his oldest son is on the autism spectrum), John has been able to support the internees with the skills he has gained in his development as a project co-ordinator, including the diploma in autism awareness that he completed as the Special Educational Needs (SEN) component of his teaching degree.

Together with one of his colleagues from the training department at the Trust, John helped customise the corporate induction programme that the young people complete when they arrive at the Trust at the beginning of each academic year.

John said:

We were asked to put together a bespoke programme for the Project Choice internees, taking into consideration what their particular needs might be and what obstacles they might need to overcome as individuals.”

We looked at the induction programme as a whole and adapted the delivery to fit the group, taking into account both what is needed for mandatory training and what is needed for best practice, looking at particular sessions such as equality and diversity, customer care and conflict resolution.”

The bespoke induction covered every element of the induction, from how to set up the room where it’s delivered, to adapting handouts so as not to exclude internees with less effective literacy skills.

John explained:

Every cohort is different and every individual is different, of course, but 70-80 per cent of the internees have a diagnosis of autism, for example, so we look at what everyone’s needs are and how we can best support them as an individual.”

Each internee is assigned an individual mentor in each department where they are placed and Project Choice has now trained 175 mentors to support people with learning disabilities, difficulties or autism (LDA).

John said:

Through Bridges to Learning, we’ve also put together training that can support their mentors in the workplace.”

We’ve organised learning disability awareness courses, dyslexia awareness courses and accredited autism courses – and we have seen a lot of the mentors take up those courses or qualifications to support them in their workplace.”

The internees undertake three placements that each span 10 to 12 weeks and are embedded in the team each time. The Project Choice team identifies any barriers they may face and areas of development they might need during each placement, while the learners are gradually assessed on how ready for employment they are throughout the programme.

Of the 52 interns who have been supported through the project so far, 77 per cent have made successful transitions into employment as a result – a figure that is all the more impressive considering that nationally, just 7 per cent of people with a learning disability are employed.

Of the most recent cohort who graduated in 2017, seven had already received job offers and three more were attending interviews by the time of the graduation ceremony in July, while the remaining two had decided to continue with further study in health and social care.

John explained:

The benefit for the individuals is that they get that real life experience of the workplace and gain that understanding of how the workplace works.”

Some go on obviously to complete formal qualifications, which supports their career and job prospects going forward and some now work for the organisation and have applied for courses with the experience they have gained with the organisation.”

The programme also pays off for the Trust, John points out.

The employer benefit is that they develop a diverse workforce with people coming in from all parts of the community.”

Project Choice is a very worthwhile project in Newcastle that is very important for young people to gain work experience and employment at the end of it, so everybody benefits.”

This case study is one of five published in Helping Young People into Work and Training

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