Disabled campaigners have raised concerns about government plans to expand an internship programme that could potentially exploit disabled young people.
Last week’s budget included plans to spend another £3 million over the next two years on expanding its supported internships programme.
The programme is currently only open to young disabled people with higher support needs who have an education, health and care plan (EHCP).
But under the new plans (PDF), the Department for Education will pilot expanding the scheme to other young disabled people entitled to special educational needs support, who are likely to have lower support needs than those with an EHCP.
Under the programme, first trialled in 2012, disabled young people are enrolled for between six and 12 months, and spend about 70 per cent of their time in an unpaid work placement, with the rest of their time at school or college.
There is no obligation on employers to pay them a wage, and such placements are exempt from minimum wage legislation.
In February 2022, the government announced it was investing up to £18 million over the next three years to build the programme’s capacity and quality. Last week, it announced in the budget a further £3 million in funding.
But the publication FE Week reported last week that only one in four disabled students on the programme remained in employment a year after their supported internship had ended.
Concerns were raised this week that the scheme offers a poor quality version of an apprenticeship, and that the government could plan to roll it out to even more disabled young people in the future.
Amelia McLoughlan, policy and research officer for The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE), told Disability News Service (DNS) that ALLFIE was “deeply concerned” by the expansion of the scheme, which was “further evidence of the current government abandoning any strategy of inclusive education”.
She said: “The fact that these supported internships are claiming to offer benefits like ‘friendships and a social life’, with no actual guarantee of meaningful employment, only points to further failing in policy to achieve justice and meet the rights of disabled people.”
Earlier this month, ALLFIE described the government’s long-awaited plans for improving education for disabled children and young people as an “all-round failure”, with delays to improved support for disabled pupils in mainstream schools, and a significant increase in the number of segregated special schools.
McLoughlan said that, given this background, ALLFIE had to “question the purpose of these expanded internships”.
She said the plans threatened to fund employers and support services but leave disabled young people “exploited under the guise of experience”.
She said that unpaid internships were seen by many as “free labour”, and “with the already limited access disabled people have to participate in mainstream education and high rates of exclusion, there is a real potential for exploitation”.
Fazilet Hadi, head of policy for Disability Rights UK, said: “Disabled people need as many choices as possible when it comes to pathways into work.
“Internships can be the right choice for some disabled people. However, it is only right that disabled people are remunerated where appropriate.
“Too often, we are seen as free labour for which we should be grateful.
“Disabled young people and their families should always be given the full menu of options, and not funnelled down the most convenient routes for government, careers advisors and employers.”
Disabled activist Catherine Scarlett, who drew the attention of DNS to the budget measure, said: “This programme is essentially slavery for disabled youngsters, vaguely disguised as an education programme.
“It seems to be a poor-quality apprenticeship without the pay that apprentices get, and appears to be highly discriminatory.
“Young people who are not disabled will get paid apprenticeships with clear qualifications paths, but disabled youngsters could be forced into a much poorer quality, unpaid path.
“It really concerns me that widening the criteria in the budget is going to lead to young disabled people being forced onto these courses and that paid apprenticeships will dwindle and it will creep to include all disabled young people, including those with higher qualifications who can’t immediately get paid jobs.”
A DfE spokesperson declined to say if the department accepted that it was a discriminatory programme.
But he said in a statement: “Supported internships are a high-quality route for young people with education health and care plans to get extra support to develop the skills they need to build a fulfilling career.
“We would expect that once a young person has demonstrated they are ready for paid employment, that they are supported to transition into a paid role.”
Picture by Google: The Department for Education in Westminster
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