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Vocational Education and Training to Support the Transition of Young People with Learning Disabilities to Paid Employment

Jenny Corbett

Jennie Kitteringham

Bernie McAnespie

Institute of Education
University of London, UK

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999

Introduction and Purpose

This paper examines some of the ways in which young people with learning disabilities in different European countries are being prepared for paid employment in 1999. There are common influences of a changing industrial base and increased employment insecurity. For young people throughout Europe there are shared employability skills of punctuality, reliability, flexibility and a capacity to work in a team. The term "learning disabilities", in its broadest sense, can be defined as experiencing difficulty with literacy and numeracy skills and having restricted social skills. For the purposes of this research it covered a wide range from young people with severe congenital disabilities to those who were learning to cope with a second language. What defined them as having learning difficulties was the way in which they had been categorised within their society.

The three countries in which this research was conducted were England, France and Cyprus and the project was funded by the Leonardo da Vinci programme of the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). Three researchers, based at the university and at two London further education colleges, made a one week visit to both France and Cyprus. During this time they interviewed teaching staff on vocational programmes, the director of Special Education in Cyprus, the director of a programme to link education, training, housing and health services in France and they observed training programmes and staff development. The initiatives which were observed were related to those in England with which the three researchers were familiar.

The purpose of the research was to find out which systems and practices worked most effectively in different national contexts and to assess what could be learnt from practitioners and policy-makers. This is a high priority area of both British government initiatives like the New Deal and of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) in its goal of achieving adult status for all. In the short time allowed by the project, the targets are set at a realistic level. They are: to record teaching and learning strategies for employability; to evaluate how "learning disability" is constituted differently in different national contexts; to share examples of support systems in the transition to employment.

Vocational Education and Training: The Case of Young People With Learning Disabilities

The changing labour market throughout Europe has created increased difficulties for the least well qualified school-leavers, yet one coherent strategy of vocational education for the whole of Europe is impractical as it ignores different cultural traditions (McLean, 1995). Recent research from the OECD has been attempting to create a more level playing-field in which vocational education and training at secondary schools throughout Europe is developed more effectively to respond to diversity (Evans, 1999).

In England, whilst there is lip-service paid to inclusive further education and training and to equality of opportunity, the new managerialism in colleges and training programmes fosters a new individualism of the independent, autonomous learner which does not recognise that some require considerable additional support (Brown and Lauder, 1995; Corbett, 1997; Leatherwood, 1998). For many young people whose learning disabilities have led them to be placed in special schooling or on special training programmes, there has developed a system of supported employment in which the transition into employment is supported at every stage by professional intervention.

The rationale for this provision is that people with learning disabilities benefit economically and socially by participating in employment and that, if they receive the appropriate support, they are able to achieve this (Kregel, 1997; Mank et al., 1997). Recent research in the UK on the actual experiences which people with a range of disabilities have had in sheltered and supported employment suggests that, because they tend to have few marketable skills, they are usually placed in a peripheral labour force (Hyde, 1998). When Reid and Bray (1998) gained the perspectives of workers with learning disabilities they found that their concerns were not about community integration as much as about earning their living and feeling valued in society.

There is inevitably a problem of disillusion among participants of training schemes for people with disabilities which do not lead to employment (Kitchen et al., 1998). In America, where the disability movement has been long established and is supported by powerful legislation, there is a strong move towards training schemes in which there is shared power with rather than power over people with learning disabilities, be it in operating a bakery, landscape gardening or packaging (Neath and Schriner, 1998). This sharing of power can be facilitated by the use of a "User’s Forum", in which members of the training programme share their views and experiences.

In this research project, there is an analysis of the ways in which programmes of training for transition into employment for people with learning disabilities offer support, guidance and sustained delivery. The employment training is related closely to broader issues of housing, health and community involvement.

Procedures and Methods

A one-week visit was made by the research team to an industrial training project near Paris, in November 1998. In this visit, the team work-shadowed their French colleagues and collected a range of qualitative data, including the following:

an observation of a staff training session in curriculum and resource planning;

three levels of literacy training, on an industrial estate location and in a training programme within the community;

interviews with trainees with learning disabilities, aged 16 to 19 years, on the community programme; and

an interview with the director of "Mission Locale" (a regional Social Exclusion Zone) on a housing estate.

A one-week visit was made by the research team to Nicosia, in Cyprus, during February 1999. In this visit the team collected a range of qualitative data, including the following:

visits to a range of local special schools to observe examples of vocational training programmes provided for young people with learning disabilities;

an interview with the director of Special Education for Cyprus to get an overall picture of services;

an interview with the director of the Committee for the Protection of the Rights of People with a Mental Handicap in Cyprus; and

observation of vocational programmes in a private, residential provision for young adults with learning disabilities.

Findings and Conclusions

The research findings were that there were certain common issues of concern in England, France and Cyprus and that there were also common strategies which were seen as valuable. There were also specific cultural differences which influenced local practices and perceptions.

In each of the contexts under scrutiny, there was evidence of a correlation between racial discrimination and unemployability. In several vocational training programmes visited in London, there appeared to be a disproportionate number of Afro-Caribbean and Asian trainees labelled as having "special training needs". In some instances, it is because parents of Asian girls, for example, might prefer that they come on a supported employment scheme where there is a high degree of professional supervision. In France, we were informed that some black trainees in the vocational programme for young people with learning disabilities would be seen by local bakers as unemployable simply because they did not want black employees handling the dough. Almost all of the mainly refugee trainees, on the programme for learning to speak French from a base of having no experience of compulsory education in France, were mature black women. They had often only entered a vocational training programme when their own children were learning French at school and they needed to converse in the language. The location of such programmes, on isolated industrial estates away from community stimulus, seemed to indicate the peripheral status of these trainees. In Cyprus, there were disproportionately high numbers of young people from refugee estates placed in special education and special training schemes. These were estates which had replaced camps where Greek Cypriots fleeing the Turkish occupied area had originally settled. There was still a stigma attached to those who were refugees in their own country.

The common strategies which were used in each of these contexts were support systems at different stages of the transition process. In Cyprus, this was observed at the school stage, where in the last two years of compulsory special schooling there were regular workplace supervisions and a close liaison established with local employers. This was then supplemented when the trainees were moving on from school or their training programmes into employment. They had the services of a "job coach" whose role was to support them in the workplace until such time as they were confident enough to cope unaided. In France, there was a holistic approach to transition in which the training team helped with finding housing, learning public transport routes to work, managing budgeting and establishing community links. Employment was just one aspect of the transition process and the other elements were seen as key contributory factors in making a successful transition to employment. In England, several training programmes shared "power with" rather than "power over" their trainees by the establishment of a "User’s Forum" in which trainees support one another with guidance and shared experiences. In one of the programmes observed, there was the use of an external facilitator in order to avoid competing loyalties by using internal staff members.

Cultural differences were evident factors in influencing priorities in vocational training. In France there was an emphasis on being able to read and write to a specific level of proficiency in French. This meant that recent refugees to the country, often from parts of the former African colonies, were categorised as having learning disabilities under this narrow criteria. Until they had reached a certain level of proficiency, they were not able to advance onto the vocational training phase of the programme. In Cyprus, there was still the legacy of a tight-knit, relatively small and cohesive society in which family connections could assist in gaining employment in small firms and light industries. However, these were beginning to go with changing economic circumstances and the opportunities for young people with learning disabilities were becoming less varied.

The research project substantiated the existing literature on research in this field by illustrating the value of effective support into employment and sustained support on the job. It also related to that literature which shows how cultural differences influence employment opportunities. What it offered which has not been highly evident in research on young people with learning disabilities to date is the uneasy relationship between racial discrimination and learning disability in the transition to employment. This is clearly an important area which merits further research.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 22 September 1999