The Royal Air Force Museum has recently embarked on an exciting new partnership with Ambitious About Autism. In June 2014 we were the first museum to receive the Autistic Society’s Autism Access Award, and were keen to build on our efforts to become more accessible. We began working with Ambitious College when we were approached by their Employment specialist, Katie Wake, about the possibility of providing work placements for some of their students.
Ambitious College is a specialist further education provision for adults with autism. Located on the Grahame Park campus of Barnet and Southgate College, the college provides specialist support to enable young people with autism to access further education and supported employment in their local community. The needs of their students are complex and many find communication and social understanding very challenging.
Part of my role as Education Officer at the museum is to develop and run our work experience programme for young people. The museum is committed to accessibility and I offer a number of work experience placements within our Access and Learning team for students with special educational needs. However, this was the first time we would be working with students with severe and complex autism, which was a little daunting.
Ambitious College were brilliant. They really make the effort to get to know the workplace so that they can find the best fit for the employer and student. After an initial meeting where Katie and I discussed timings and tasks students might do at the museum, Katie spent a day with the Access and Learning team getting to know our working environment.
The museum’s formal learning activities are quite resource heavy. Visiting school groups can make replica gas mask boxes, evacuee labels, mini helicopter rotors, rockets or parachutes. All of these workshop resources need to be prepared in advance, and in large numbers. With up to 240 children visiting per day we get through them very quickly! Katie and I had identified resource preparation as a task that would suit her students and be very helpful to the museum.
During her time with our team Katie shadowed staff, took photographs of the resources students would be working with, and of the office environment itself. We provided her with the museum’s health and safety and risk assessment information as well as our guide for visitors with autism. This enabled her to put together an information pack which ensures that Ambitious College staff and students can be fully briefed before they come into the museum.
The museum agreed that we would take on one student for one afternoon per week on a rolling basis.
During the placement
Before each placement Katie sends me a profile of the student detailing their specific needs, likes and dislikes, and how they communicate. During their placement students are accompanied by at least two specialist college support staff who know the student well and coach and support them at all times. Students have their own desk in our open plan office. I provide a series of tasks for them to complete, and the support staff work directly with the student to encourage and assist them with their work. At the end of their placement students get a certificate of achievement together with a record of the tasks they have completed.
We took on our first Ambitious College student, Mary, between February and April 2015, and our second, Conor, from May to July. So far the partnership seems to be working really well. Both Mary and Conor coped brilliantly with the Museum environment. They took to the work we gave them very quickly and did a fantastic job.
Feedback from the College has been very positive. The students benefit from gaining experience of a new environment and meeting new people. As well as building confidence, they are also developing new skills and an understanding of the workplace.
The museum benefits by expanding its range of partnerships, improving accessibility and by having the chance to learn from highly trained and experienced SEN professionals. In addition, the work these students do preparing resources for our learning activities makes a real contribution to our schools programme.
We are all adapting and learning as we go along. Early on I discovered that a good approach was to provide students with a variety of different tasks to complete so that they could be encouraged to choose what they did, and in which order.
As an employer, being a little bit flexible can be helpful. There are occasions when students are not able to attend their allotted placement time and have to cancel on short notice, for example. Above all, I think maintaining good communication between partners has been vital to the success of this project.
Working with Ambitious College has been personally very inspiring. Observing how the support staff work with their students, motivating and encouraging them, has been a real education. Their skill and professionalism gives me complete confidence that we can offer work placements for students with complex needs. I also feel that I am learning a great deal from their staff that I can apply in my wider role as an Education Officer. This can really help us improve the museum’s provision for SEND audiences.
I very much hope we can continue to develop and expand this relationship. In November this year Ambitious College and the RAF museum will be delivering a joint presentation at the Museums Association Conference about our experiences of providing work placements for students with autism.
I look forward to taking on more students when the new term starts in September. Working with Ambitious College has been beneficial in so many ways. We are all learning from this partnership and that is extremely positive and exciting.
RAF Museum London