CEO of DFN Project Search, Claire Cookson, discusses her mission to get 10,000 young people with learning disabilities and autism into full-time jobs over the next decade and shares her best advice for finding pathways into the workplace. 

Claire Cookson is one of the principal voices for supported employment in the UK and an inspirational female leader. Even so, it’s no easy task for Claire and her team, with national statistics showing that just 5.6% of people with a learning disability or autism who are known to local authorities are in work and the remaining 94% “unfortunately, and disappointedly, dropping off a cliff after leaving education,” says Claire, who has made it her personal mission to challenge the status quo and support young adults into the workplace. 

“We want to get 20,000 people into jobs in the next 15 years. That’s what we work towards, and I feel absolutely compelled to work with the phenomenal DFN team to raise ambition and aspiration across the country. There is some amazing practice in the UK and there are areas where there isn’t a strong supported internship route for people with learning needs, and that just feels really unfair,” Claire continues. 

“Everyone deserves the right to aspire to their very best future, but that seems to be something that traditionally we have denied to young people with additional learning needs. There is so much that we want to achieve and I really want to be part of this for a long time and keep working until there is systematic change; I think that’s what I’m looking for. This needs to become the norm, this needs to be just what happens. I am not going to stop until we’ve got so many thousands and thousands getting jobs every year.” 

A down-syndrome man attending education class in community center, inclusivity of disabled person.

DFN Project Search works to build a more inclusive society by helping to create much improved career opportunities for those with learning disabilities and autism through 70 supported internship schemes across the UK, and the charity is succeeding even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Latest data from DFN Project Search shows that in the past 12 months, 64% of its 477 interns secured well paid work. Additionally, 32 DFN Project Search interns secured a job when the country was in full lockdown and all of the roles were classified as key workers.

“One of the things that I am particularly proud of during this time is the number of DFN Project Search graduates who have been working in and securing key worker roles with NHS partners during the crisis,” Claire says.  

“The past 12 months have been transformational as we have responded to the challenges of the pandemic and it is fair to say that the social hierarchy has been challenged. We have never been more equal; no one can buy protection from coronavirus. Society has been forced to reassess what we consider key and essential roles, and communities have started to value and celebrate people as individuals.

Our interns have risen to the challenge in frontline roles and continue to do amazing work across vital sectors like healthcare and logistics. They share anxieties like all of us, but they have overcome these to be part of a more inclusive workforce. What’s more is that their work ethic has shone through and they have shown themselves to be able to understand and adhere to new ways of working and follow stringent health and safety guidelines.”

A down-syndrome man attending education class in community center, inclusivity of disabled person.

Exciting developments
This well-established working relationship at a local level with NHS trusts across the UK has led to a new and exciting national development for DFN Project Search, a landmark strategic partnership with NHS England, Health Education England, NHS Improvement and NHS Employers recently confirmed. 

“This official partnership between ourselves and NHS England, Health Education England, NHS Improvement and NHS Employers, is an exciting progression of the work we have already been doing with NHS Trusts up and down the country,” explains Claire. 

“It represents a huge opportunity for us to expand our programme across England as we forge ahead with our vision to help young people with learning disabilities and autism get great jobs. It will establish over 40 new supported internship programmes over the next two years, creating 500 new internships each year, and adding further momentum to our ambitions.”

A passionate advocate in both the education sector, as well as with employers, Claire has an extensive knowledge of employment provisions across the country, developed throughout her teaching career where she wrote curriculums and led supported internship programmes for students with additional learning needs. 

Her advice for how disabled people can help themselves: “There are a couple of pieces of advice that I would give,” she begins. “Firstly, for those in education, it’s important to reach out and ask for advice and guidance around the transition to employment pathways within their local offer. If they are an adult then they could ask their Jobcentre Plus, part of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), to connect them to an adult supported employment provision within their area. It is worth noting on that point that once someone with a disability secures employment, DWP provides Access to Work funding (for people who meet certain thresholds) to support them within the workplace setting.” 

Under Claire’s leadership, the charity achieved a net promotor score of 66.5% in 2020. Worth noting is that, according to leading management consulting firm, Bain & Co, an NPS of 50- plus is regarded as excellent and 70-plus is world class. 

Additionally, between August and September last year, an external research company that reached out to its partners to find out their views about DFN Project Search found that 96% agree that the programme is high aiming, 95% said that the programme achieves great results and that 94% believe the programme is committed to continued improvement.

For Claire, this is testament to “the dedication and collaboration from our partners in education, business, local government and healthcare. We couldn’t have achieved such incredible results without the myriad of people involved in the running of our programmes as well as the drive and commitment from our talented interns, who have been smashing stereotypes and making such a vital contribution in communities up and down the country.

This latest partnership with NHS England, Health Education England, NHS Improvement and NHS Employers provides a platform to build on the success of the past 12 months and I truly believe the collaboration will act as a springboard for longer term change as we press ahead with our vision to build a more fair and equal society.”

You can learn more about DFN Project Search at: