BLOG: Innovation to transform lives

How an innovative new initiative could transform the lives of SEND students and has started to close the digital skills gap

By Andy Lovatt, Managing Director, Digital Advantage CIC

Digital Advantage is an innovative digital training company based at Federation House in Manchester. For the past 5 years we have been taking our experiential learning model to hard to reach groups across the North West. For the past 3 years we have been working with students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), with some remarkable results.

Skin in the game

As a parent of a 12 year-old child with Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) I remain appalled at the criminally high unemployment rate for autistic young people, currently running at 86%. But also, as someone who has worked in the creative and digital sector for 25 years, I recognise that many of the strengths and capabilities of people with ASC often align with the increasing skills gaps in the digital economy. We’ve worked with around 300 students and have uncovered an incredible pool of talented young people. Brilliant, professional quality designers, coders, illustrators, animators, marketeers and analysts who just need the right support to be able to get some of the great jobs available in the sector.

An image of a teenage with an older man holding a Instagram selfie frame that says I'm digitally advantaged on it

Bridging the gap

Our experience and others’ research has shown that there is a direct correlation between many of the skills and talent of SEND young people (especially those with ASC) with the skills required by an expanding digital economy. An economy that that is demonstrating huge skills shortages and that expects to recruit over 30,000 people for new jobs in the sector during the next 5 years.

Until now there has been a lack of appropriate support available to SEND young people to enable them to fulfil their potential and secure some of the higher-level jobs available. This lack of support is contributing to unreasonably high unemployment rates for SEND students, and a tragic waste of a valuable pool of talent.

 Greater Manchester’s untapped talent pipeline

 As part of the development of a talent pipeline from the SEND community into higher level jobs in the digital economy, we have created Digital Inc., an innovative and effective programme of digital skills and employability     development in schools. The project has developed close links with GM Autism Employment Group, BASE, PURE Innovations, Coop Foundation, BBC, Prince’s Trust and GCHQ - all organisations working to improve   neurodiversity in Greater Manchester’s digital workplace. Digital Inc. has been independently evaluated; it works really well, and has had a profound effect on the schools, young people and parents of SEND students.

COVID 19 and the shift online.

Since Covid we have worked hard to take our core learning on-line realising that SEND are once again going to suffer more than other students and that there schools, parents and carers need extra support to maintain the level of support they need to succeed.

We’ve worked hard with our industry experts and sector specialist to produce a range of engaging, video-led, task-based training workshops that can be delivered either by their teacher in the classroom or remotely at home by their parent or carer. We’ve also produced two CPD workshops to support carers and teachers and give them the skills and confidence they need to either support building a basic website or indeed manage a digital project. Take a look at the kind of stuff we’ve developed. We’d be more than happy to get feedback to see if and where we could improve this. The on-line delivery is fully funded in Greater Manchester by the GMCA, in Lancashire by the LEP, and in Birmingham by the Birmingham Education Partnership (BEP). Schools that participate in this programme can nominate students to progress onto our Digital Supported Internship.An image of a young man in a wheelchair in the Federation House building next to a wall saying This is the Place

 The Digital Supported Internship model

This programme has been designed for and by young people working with industry professionals. It is targeted at students 16-24 who find mainstream provision a challenge and who will respond better to experiential, strengths-based learning. It will be based at the Digital Inc. agency located in the city centre. It will refine interventions that have worked well in the development stage but with more focus on employer engagement, as it is targeted at achieving positive outcomes into apprenticeships, work or Higher Education.

In addition learners will also develop their own business proposition or freelance operation: this may be a website, an app, e-commerce venture or e-portfolio for their freelance work. Students will work in small teams to respond to employer briefs from our partners and receive customised technical skills development depending on their requirements.

We’re also working with employers (of which we need more) to develop capacity and relationships, including paid work placements and internships, apprenticeships and eventual employment.

Going Forward

Having launched the recruitment during lockdown we have recruited steadily over the summer months and still have a few places to fill. Employers are offering their support in a number of ways including live briefs, mentoring, extended work experiences and interviews to become apprentices. They include GCHQ, CISCO, Manchester City Council, Autotrader, Push Doctor, Numbers and Lines, The Manchester College, Princes Trust, BBC and ITV.

Greater Manchester is leading the way in innovation for young people with SEND, yet, as a society, we need to do more to bridge the gap between education and employment to make sure that the skills and talents of SEND young people are being fully realised.  With Digital Inc. we’re doing things differently; we’re trying new ways of working and taking some measured risks. We think what we’ve developed will work really well for anyone wanting to get a great job in the digital economy, but as ever, we need more support from employers and anyone else who thinks that an 86% unemployment rate is not OK.

Throughout October the GMCA are running Digitober, a campaign celebrating the Greater Manchester digital sector. Digitober is focused on bringing together businesses from across Greater Manchester to combat digital exclusion and close the digital divide. 

Find out more about Digitober and how your organisation can get involved

Find out more about Digital Advantage 


Article Published: 19/10/2020 11:08 AM