Work experience placements

An important part of my role is to work with schools and colleges to create a presumption of employment for students with Down’s syndrome. Schools and colleges must be creative in how they support students, providing the best possible work experience for them to avoid unnecessary barriers.

Recently I have been supporting Natalie, a 16 year old student with Down’s syndrome to prepare for her end of year work experience placement.

Natalie’s work experience was in a day nursery and some pre-placement ‘taster sessions’ had been arranged. As Natalie’s college were unable to support these sessions her mum had stepped in to support her. I spent my first session watching and learning about Natalie, observing how staff reacted to and connected with her. The staff, Natalie and her mum were all finding things rather difficult:  Natalie was not sure what she was supposed to be doing and the nursery staff were unsure how to structure the sessions. I had a meeting with Natalie’s team leader, the nursery manager and a Higher Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA) from the college to see how things could be improved. Together we created a timetable for the initial sessions: 1.5 hours, one afternoon a week.

The following week we started afresh with the timetable. I supported Natalie and developed the staff’s understanding of the right support for somebody with Down’s syndrome. Natalie had struggled a little with the change of continuity, particularly the transition from college to workplace, but on the day everyone responded really well to the new structure and the difference in Natalie was quite apparent in a short space of time.

At the beginning of each session, Natalie and I talked about the general concept of work and specifically what her working time would entail. We worked through the timetable so that Natalie knew exactly what she would be doing during her work placement. This was particularly important in a nursery environment as Natalie was surrounded by toys and children playing with them. We had to create an understanding that although the children were there to play Natalie wasn’t; she was there to support them and help them. As a student Natalie had no experience of the workplace, but after giving her and her mum some simple strategies, Natalie’s confidence grew. Simple strategies like not asking if someone has ‘had fun’ at work can make a huge difference to a person’s understanding of the workplace.

After a couple of the initial taster sessions I felt that we should put together a timetable for progression to gradually increase Natalie’s time to four hours per session and then to four hours for two days a week. This was really important as without this progression Natalie would not be able to achieve all that she was capable of during her work placement. To suddenly move Natalie from 1.5 hour sessions once a week, to four hours a day for five days with a different person supporting her would have created an difficult situation for everybody, most importantly for Natalie who may not have coped with these sudden changes.

The nursery were really happy with this plan, but I could see that it was going to be difficult for the college to offer more support than they had already planned for during the final week. They did however manage to find someone to support Natalie to and from the placement and they were also able to allow Natalie the longer sessions and the extra days away from school. We also arranged a handover between myself and the HTLA to ensure that the change of support wouldn’t upset Natalie’s progress.

Once we moved to the four hours we changed Natalie’s work programme and introduced her to new skills. This new work programme worked really well; Natalie’s new tasks were in shorter bursts and this seemed to really work for her. Natalie became more involved with the children and began to enjoy her time at the nursery much more.

At the end of the week I did a review with the nursery team. They felt the whole experience had been a difficult, but positive learning curve. I asked the nursery two questions at the end of the review: “would you do this again knowing what you know now?” and “ if the right training, hours and in-work-support were arranged, did they feel that as an employer they would consider offering paid work to somebody with Down’s syndrome?” They answered yes to both questions!

The nursery manager said:

“The support from the Employment Development Officer, the gentle transition into the job role and a real understanding of the student’s capability has ensured that it has become a positive experience for the student and the work placement. Thank you.”

Natalie’s mum said:

“Natalie has loved working at the nursery. It has been a learning curve, but ultimately the experience has been very positive. She has been keen to go each day and I know she will be sorry when her placement ends. She has found some things difficult, for example being in an environment where she is surrounded by toys she can’t play with! However she loves little children and has benefited from having to think about her own behaviour and the need to set a good example. I don’t think the placement would have worked without the support of WorkFit. Work is a very different environment and WorkFit’s expertise in organising a gradually built up timetable and clear expectations and routines has allowed Natalie to make a smooth transition from school to work experience. I hope one day that Natalie can have a job that she enjoys, feeling safe, happy and valued. Work experience has been a first step in the right direction”.

WorkFit will continue to develop opportunities with schools and colleges so that preparation for work placements can start much earlier. This will include assisting schools and colleges to arrange taster sessions and create progression plans. As part of the Educational Provision of the EHCP for students, support can be planned and appropriate targets can be set for each individual. Work experience and employment should be listed as an outcome in the ECHP for young people with Down’s syndrome. Young people with additional needs usually have a set amount of support in place, but it is vital this is properly allocated to avoid difficulties around work experience opportunities. It is also important to make sure that the person who will be supporting the student knows how to deliver support in a working environment.

It is vital that schools and colleges have a clear presumption of employment for young people with Down’s syndrome. The SEND Code of Practice clearly states (8.34):

“one of the most effective ways to prepare young people with SEN for employment is to arrange work-based learning that enables them to have first-hand experience of work”.

It goes on further to state (8.35):

“a thorough understanding of student’s potential, abilities, interests and areas they want to develop should inform honest conversations with potential employers”. 

Work placements should be about positive opportunities for young people and should be both meaningful and appropriate. We know the importance of vocational career pathways alongside academic achievements and we need to be working together to ensure that appropriate support is in place to enable students to gain access to that pathway. Work placements can be hugely beneficial, allowing students to experience a variety of careers to determine which could be the right one for them. Work is about so much more than getting paid. A job enables people to take their rightful place in society, giving them independence, an opportunity to make friends and so much more.


WorkFit supports young people and adults with Down’s syndrome to access meaningful work opportunities that can benefit the rest of their lives. We need your local knowledge and your on-going support to help us achieve this. Do you know of inclusive employers?  Do you know employers who are currently or who have the potential to support people with Down’s syndrome? We are guessing for every young person with Down’s syndrome there is a working parent or relative or friend who could potentially ask at their place of work?

ICAP logoTell us who the employers are by contacting the WorkFit team on 0333 12 12 300 or email us on

For more information visit the WorkFit website