Observing the French Employment pathways for young people with SEND
Julie Pointer reflects on her recent trip to look at what French colleagues are doing to increase opportunities for paid employment for young people with SEND.
In early October, a group of us took the Eurostar train to France to spend a week in Laval near Britany, to meet with a range of co-ordinators, providers and young people and their families to look at what they are doing to ensure young people with SEND can enjoy all of the benefits that come with being part of the world of work.
Our group included a commissioner from a local authority, a job coach from a mainstream FE provider, myself, Linda Jordan, Sterre (pictured) and her PA Hannah, and of course Sterre’s amazing assistance dog Merlot (pictured).
The trip is part of our work on an Erasmus-funded project to look at employment pathways for young people with learning disabilities in France, England and Portugal. Back in June we hosted groups from France and Portugal here in England where they were able to see first-hand examples of young learning disabled interns and people in work.
Although we found some similarities to employment pathways applied in England, there were some stark differences too which are explained in full in our briefing report.
Our main observations included:
- Young people described as having a “severe” disability are young people we, in England, would most likely see in mainstream schools on SEN Support or possibly in a special school for those with moderate needs.
- There is a much stronger emphasis placed on “vocational training”, with vocational courses being defined as “professional training”, this in turn has led to a more professional and sustainable set-up around employment pathways.
- Schools offer huge subsidies to children and young people with additional needs, meaning that fees are kept to a minimum.
- Young people can follow inclusion modules in mainstream schools according to their interest and ability and age through primary, secondary and FE. These modules can be of a vocational nature following a “professional” pathway.
- Access to support and services is via a multi-disciplinary team who assess a child or young person and decide which education pathway they should follow.
- There are layers within the system which means that France retains a somewhat institutional approach that includes hospital schools and a definition of “uneducable”
- Support for children and young people with Autism seems to be via a different route and is currently under review.
- As part of the segregated approach, France still run sheltered workshop for disabled adults.
As part of the trip we visited a sheltered workshop which left us feeling angry and saddened to see people who had been there for many years (one young woman we spoke to had been there 30 years) carrying out mundane tasks with what seemed to be no support for ambition or aspiration. Employees were desperate to talk and interact with us, and most were more than able to do so. Whilst we think that the organisations running the resource and those commissioning it think it is providing meaningful activity, for us it was like going back to the adult training centre days in England which were closed in the 90s.
The French identification system regarding “disability” seems to be much lower than ours with most of the young people and adults we saw likely to be included in the mainstream world here. We didn’t visit any of the hospital provision so can’t comment on the resources for those children and young people with severe disabilities and complex needs.
Travelling with a young woman with complex support needs who used signing to communicate had a huge impact on the trip for us taking part but particularly for our French hosts. Because she has been included in mainstream education since the age of 14, Sterre has great social skills and is a fantastic communicator despite using few words.
During the week, Sterre (initially with support from her PA Hannah) was a real ambassador for how young people with complex needs can be included and clearly had a positive impact on all of us.
A particular highlight for me was during a visit to one of the resources for young people and their families run by DJINH (a local area multi-disciplinary team). Sterre asked if she could do a presentation about her life and the activities she enjoys; for the young people, seeing someone communicating through signing in a confident way along with answering the group’s questions enabled even the quieter and less confident to speak out. She was a real example of inclusion.
The French approach to vocational training is refreshing and all of the staff we met in schools, colleges and through the DJINH team seem to share a similar respect for employment opportunities that the vocational route can offer. There was a feeling of vocational and academic achievements being on an equal footing. Resources in both schools and colleges were of exceptional standard and courses seem to have been developed to support local business and fill the skills gap.
The passion and vision of the DJINH team member and their warmth and hospitality to those they support and to us as visitors was exceptional. Positive outcomes for young people are more likely because of the strong relationships with the team.
Next month we visit Portugal to look at similarities and differences between us and France. From our conversations with our Portuguese colleagues we suspect that they offer a more inclusive approach with a similar definition of disability to England.
A report is due out early next year to share experiences and learning and to evaluate the experiences of participants alongside looking at what changes can be made across the three countries to further support positive pathways to employment for young people with learning disabilities.