A real-world approach to work-related learning

Posted on 16th Sep 2019 in School News, Specialist college, Learning difficulties

Dr Graeme Athey is Director of Education at Fairfield Farm College, which specialises in providing study programmes for young people with SEND, focusing on work-related learning as an alternative to the traditional work experience model.

Approaches to work experience, are, in the main, future looking insomuch as they expect young people to predict a future employment market and then to identify their role within it. This demand on young people requires insights that are often decontextualized, overly ambitious and increasingly mismatched to a competitive world of work of the future. How can young people prepare for a future that does not yet exist? Such snap-shot perspectives on ‘work experience’ do little to develop significant understanding in the wider context of work and are often compounded by rigid or inflexible ways of thinking, limited opportunity and rudimentary considerations of employment.

The concept of work is challenging at the outset. It is infinite, ever-changing and variable, which does little to set a conceptual understanding in our learners. The idea that you need to be able to visualise and predict a desired field of work, or furthermore, a specific career and then back-chain to the present day is problematic, for many reasons.

There is a practical tension vis-à-vis teaching and learning, principally between preparing students for an uncertain future whilst continuing conventional approaches to education and an understanding about work. Employment rates are greater among young people with qualifications than those without (OECD, 2013); therefore, it may seem prudent to assume that from this perspective it pays to be educated. Yet, 48% of adults with disabilities are unemployed compared to 19% of those without disabilities (House of Commons, paper 7540 Nov 2018) which represents a substantial conflict between the intention behind work experience and the realistic outcomes. This further supports the difficulties that the world of work presents for people with disabilities.

The conceptual challenges associated with futuristic predictions of the world of work, the employment sector in general and the conflicting information continues to be problematic. The World of Work approach at Fairfield Farm College offers an alternative perspective. Most school leavers have a memory of going to work at a family business, or at the offices of a friend of their parents, which generally involved undertaking menial duties, running errands and supporting others in their work. In most cases, the role was not part of a planned approach, did little to identify and build on existing skills, aspirations and desires but simply offered a tick in the box for ‘work experience completed’.

Recognising a range of models and approaches to work-based learning within a setting provides a variety of opportunities to engage with the world of work, regardless of ability, academic achievement or learning disability. This approach also pulls the world of work into the present and contextualises the here and now, a skill that young people with SEND often find challenging. A central theme that adds value to Fairfield Farm College’s approach is an understanding of differing types of work-related learning. A distinction that puts the work at the centre of its learning opportunities.

Understanding that everything the students undertake at college is related to work, is a simple but significant shift in understanding by the learners and staff alike. The wise W. C. Fields, once said ‘never work with animals or children’. But for the staff at Fairfield Farm College, this is a daily occurrence. Opportunities for the development of work-related learning comprise a 26-acre working farm, equine studies and stable management, animal management, reception and customer service, hospitality and catering, a 15-acre animal park, two cafes and a farm shop.

Fairfield Farm College takes a broad approach to curriculum. All of the young people follow a personalised programme of employability skills, which permeate all areas of college life and leaning. Working alongside real animals, dealing with real-life customers, budgeting for, planting and propagating real plants for sale in our farm shop and serving hundreds of customers a week provides for a myriad of opportunities to understand how our young peoples’ skills and areas for development can lead to employment.

Regardless of diagnosis or academic achievement, all of the young people are engaged with a work-related learning programme. At the earliest phase, this could be focusing on the prerequisite skills that underpin all work, such as turn taking, following instructions, recognising a sequence or understanding when a task is complete. At the other end of this continuum are young people running a professional catering kitchen, cafes that serve over 350 customers a week and grooming, feeding and caring for Highland cows, emus or alpacas!

The key to any approach is consistency, but for us, we have a commitment to making explicit how each activity, skill and opportunity can contribute to an overall understanding of the world of work. Communication, number skills, relationship building, problem solving and IT all feature prominently in the craft of the tutors and job coaches. Planning and assessment focus on transferability and consolidating skills development. Empowering our learners to understand their skills-set and how this applies to work, rather than a specific role, gives our graduates the best opportunity as they move from education into the supposed ‘real-world’.

This article first appeared in the 2019/20 edition of Which School? for Special Needs. The digital version can be viewed here: