People with learning difficulties and employment – special report

The report of the Working Group on Learning Disabilities and Employment [] was written 18 months ago, but only published last week.

It made 42 recommendations to the Department for Work and Pensions and Department of Health, who set up the group in 2002, to improve support for people from childhood to adulthood, and reduce barriers to employment.

Councils, schools, colleges, the Learning and Skills Council, Connexions and Jobcentre Plus, were among the bodies targeted by the report, alongside several other government departments.

Here are its key findings:

Support for young people:


• Transition planning for children with learning difficulties leaving school is inadequate with little expectation that children will get a job.
• Further education is often a default option even when work-based learning would be more appropriate.
• Research has found that government guidance on transition planning, contained in the SEN code of practice, is often not followed. For instance, transition plans, which must be completed as part of the year 9 annual review for statemented children, are sometimes not completed and young people and parents do not feel properly involved.
• Recommendation: The Department for Education and Skills should ensure there is greater focus on employment in the year 9 annual review for all statemented children.


• The report said that in general Connexions lacked “both the skills and the capacity to provide effective support to young people with learning disabilities”. Personal advisers did not have the time or skills to adequately support people with learning difficulties.
• A training module for personal advisers on working with disabled people introduced in 2003 was “superficial and narrowly focused” and optional, not mandatory.
• Advisers tend to encourage young people into further education despite this not being appropriate for many young people with learning difficulties, who may not be able to acquire certain FE qualifications and would benefit from a more direct route into work.
• Recommendation: DfES should properly resource Connexions to support young people with learning difficulties.

Further Education

• Some colleges are failing to prepare people with learning difficulties for work when they leave, meaning they fail to retain jobs when they get them.
• Recommendation: Colleges must develop course in consultation with Jobcentre Plus and others to ensure greater emphasis on employment outcomes, as well as qualifications.

Support for adults:


• Funding for employment support is inadequate and often unstable and from short-term sources, such as the European Social Fund. Councils are under no statutory duty to provide employment support for people with learning difficulties, making it an easy target for cuts.
• Responsibility for employment support for people with learning difficulties is not clear, particularly as between local authorities and the DWP (through Jobcentre Plus).
• There is a lack of joint working at national and local level. For instance, links between Jobcentre Plus and council supported employment services tend to be contractual, with little joint planning of provision. Government public service agreements provide little incentive for agencies to work together.
• Recommendations: The DWP, DH and DfES should consider how to establish responsibility for employment support for people with learning difficulties and to promote cross-government co-ordination. In the long-term there should be a single, ring-fenced fund for employment support for people with learning difficulties.

Social Services

• They are generally only in touch with people with severe learning difficulties, due to care service thresholds, few of whom will be in a position to work.
• “Anecdotal evidence” suggests social workers do not know enough about helping people with learning difficulties get and keep jobs.

Jobcentre Plus

• Programmes commissioned by Jobcentres to help disabled people find and maintain employment do not cater adequately for people with learning difficulties.
o Work Preparation, which is designed to help disabled people return to work after a long period of unemployment through tailored support, is limited to 13 weeks. This is “simply inadequate” to prepare someone with a learning difficulty for employment.
o New Deal for Disabled People, which helps people on disability or health-related benefits find and keep work, is ill-suited to providing the longer-term support that people with learning difficulties may need.
o WORKSTEP, which provides supported employment and is the main programme for people with learning difficulties, is only available to people who can work more than 16 hours. This excludes a number of people with learning difficulties who cannot work this many hours.
o Access to Work, which provides grants to enable disabled employees to work, is available to people who cannot work 16 hours. However, people registered under Supported Permitted Work, who can claim incapacity benefit while working up to 16 hours a week, can only receive Access to Work support for six months.
•  Jobcentre Plus disability employment advisers admit they struggle to offer people with learning difficulties an appropriate service. They do not have a definition of “learning disability” they can work from and often lack information on other sources of help for this client group.
• Recommendations: The DWP should investigate whether WORKSTEP should be extended to people who can work for five to 15 hours and whether the New Deal for Disabled People could take more account of those who are hardest to help into employment. The Valuing People Support Team should work with Jobcentre Plus to help improve training.

Benefits trap

• Under permitted work rules people earn a maximum of £20 a week while retaining means-tested benefits, amounting to under four hours work at the minimum wage. If this does not change most people with learning difficulties will only be able to be employed for a few hours a week and “we will fail to achieve the aspirations of Valuing People”.
• Recommendation: The DWP should review the current disregard on means-tested benefits to allow people to work more hours and retain benefits.

Minimum wage

• Many employed people with learning difficulties are not being paid the minimum wage, hindering their opportunities and leaving employers open to challenges and back pay claims.
• One reason is the continuation of formerly legal employment practices, where people with learning difficulties were employed by councils and others in workshops as a way of providing them with meaningful activity rather than a job. These should have been covered by the minimum wage since its introduction in 1999.
• Guidance from DTI and Revenues and Customs on employers’ obligations has not been sufficiently clear or well-marketed.
• Recommendation: – The government, the Low Pay Commission and the Commission for Social Care Inspection should help raise the profile of employers’ minimum wage responsibilities to people with learning difficulties.

Employer attitudes

• The public sector is as hesitant about employing people with learning difficulties as the private sector, and little has changed since Valuing People’s publication in 2001.
• Many employers have admitted they do not feel confident that people with learning difficulties will be capable of carrying out responsible work.
• Employers need to be open to “job carving” i.e. creating a job matched to a particular person’s skills (page 66).
• Recommendations: Much more work is needed to publicise the support available to employers and to promote employability of people with learning difficulties by government. Employers need to be open to “carving” out jobs to suit people with learning difficulties.

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