National supported internship day – transforming the lives of young people with a learning disability and young people who are autistic

Young people with a learning disability and young people who are autistic need opportunities for employment. It improves health, life skills and wellbeing.

Yet according to the ONS, only 4.8% of people in England (and 4.1% of people in Scotland) with a learning disability and people who are autistic who are known to local authorities go on to secure paid employment, compared to 80% of their peers.

NHS England, together with partners, is working to change that.

One of the most effective ways of helping young people with a learning disability and young people who are autistic on the journey to employment is through supported internship programmes. These provide a structured transition-to-work programme combining real-life work experience with training in employability and independent living skills.

As part of the commitment to increasing the number of supported internships and lasting employment in the NHS Long Term Plan, NHS England and Health Education England each committed to support an additional 42 supported internship programmes across England. On the 31 March 2021 DFN Project SEARCH was awarded the contract for delivery of this.

Supported internships are a one-year work-based study programme, where young people spend the majority of their time based at an employer. They provide an important step on the employment journey, helping young people aged 16 to 24 with an Education, Health and Care plan (EHCP) or another form of Special Educational Needs (SEN) support to get the skills they need for work so they can get into a job.

In 2022 DFN Project SEARCH were awarded a government contract from the Department for Education, as part of a consortium, to double the number of supported internships to 4,500 per year in England by March 2025.

To help support this initiative, Monday 27 March marked the first-ever National Supported Internship Day, aimed at raising awareness of the huge impact that a supported internship can have, not only on the life outcomes of the interns who take part, but on the host organisation and wider society too.

As the largest public sector employer in the UK, the NHS has the infrastructure to offer meaningful jobs to people with learning disabilities and people who are autistic and create a workplace where they can thrive.

Although there are already a range of supported internship programmes being delivered by a number of NHS organisations and partners across the health system, we can do more.

What are the benefits of offering a supported internship?

Supported internships have a transformative effect on the interns who take part, helping young people make successful transitions to productive adult life.

They also offer several economic benefits to the employers, providing access to a new, diverse talent stream with skills to match labour needs.

There are many reported benefits of employing people with a learning disability and people who are autistic such as: creating a wider, more diverse recruitment pool; reduced staff turnover; higher staff morale; increased productivity; and encouraging more creative and flexible ways of thinking and problem-solving.

By gaining an understanding of learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions, you can open up new possibilities for your organisation and new potential employees.

How else can I help?

If your NHS organisation does not yet host a supported internship programme there are opportunities through the Department for Education funded initiative, Internship Works.

You can also become a Supported Internship Employer Champion. Sign up to an Eventbrite session to learn more about becoming an NHS Employer Champion.

Find out more about the first annual National Supported Internship Day by searching #NationalSupportedInternshipDay or #NSID2023 to find inspirational stories shared on the day, or visit the DFN Project SEARCH web pages.





Dr Neil Churchill

Dr Neil Churchill is Director for Experience, Participation and Equalities at NHS England.

His brief includes insight and feedback, patient participation in decision-making, improvement programmes on cancer, learning disability and support for carers and national partnerships with volunteers and the voluntary sector.

Neil joined NHS England in 2013 after a 25 year career in the voluntary sector at organisations including Barnardo’s, Age Concern, Crisis and Asthma UK. He has been a Non-Executive Director for NHS South of England, an appointed member of the National Information Governance Board and a trustee of a number of charities across the UK.

Neil is a member of the Executive Board for the Beryl Institute, a change agent from the School for Change Agents and a member of Q, the quality improvement collaborative from the Health Foundation. He tweets as @neilgchurchill.