Royal United Hospitals Bath Foundation Trust’s Project SEARCH in partnership with Virgin care and Fosse Way School gave adults with learning difficulties a positive experience of the workplace and employment opportunities, winning the 2018 HSJ Award for Widening Participation

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Royal United Hospitals Bath Foundation Trust won Widening Participation category at the 2018 HSJ Awards for their partnership with Virgin Care and Fosse Way School, a specialist school for young people with learning difficulties, for the Project SEARCH programme.

Project SEARCH is intended to improve the shockingly low rates of employment generally found among adults with learning difficulties by giving them a positive experience of the workplace and improving their life chances with an opportunity to secure paid employment.

In addition to rarely being in employment, adults with learning difficulties are vulnerable and over represented in the prison and criminal justice system. Gaining employment helps to build self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.

Project SEARCH was originally developed in the US in Cincinnati and the Bath programme is the first of its kind in the UK. During the programme students spend a year on site undertaking three work placements with an employer having a combination of on the job learning and classroom-based activities.

Royal United Hospitals Bath provides the classroom, HR support and internships to students from Fosse Way School, while Virgin Care job coaches visit students at least once a day while on placement and provide coaching to support the development of new work specific skills, such as how to clean podiatry equipment. The job coaches learn the new task alongside the student and coach them how to complete it in a systematic manner.

The coaching continues after graduation for individuals who secure employment within the trust or elsewhere after their participation in the programme ends.

Since beginning in 2009 the programme has enrolled 68 students (an average of eight a year), with a completion rate of 90 per cent. The results are striking. While the national employment rate for adults with learning difficulties is just six per cent, for Project SEARCH participants the rate is 66 per cent for those working at least 16 hours a week. If those working fewer than 16 hours are also taken into account, the rate is closer to 100 per cent.

While recruiting students to the programme in its early days could be challenging, demand for them now outstrips supply.

“We were delighted to win the award and gain recognition for this, when we already knew how much of a difference Project SEARCH makes to the students,” says trust chief executive James Scott. “We have a graduation ceremony for each cohort of students and at them we have their parents coming up, telling us how these young people are now living independent lives, working, living in their own flats and driving their own cars. Before, their parents were worried about what would happen to their children when they were dead and not around to help. And it is Project SEARCH that has made all the difference.”

Mr Scott said the HSJ Award has since been taken into meetings with staff, the council of governors, with commissioners and with the chair of a neighbouring trust.

“We are the largest employer locally and that comes with a responsibility to the community,” says Mr Scott. “We will always support this programme and engage others to think about taking part in it.”

Fosse Way School Project SEARCH co-ordinator and post 16 tutor Tony Kelly admits that before entering the programme for an HSJ Award he was unaware of their significance.

“Before entering them we didn’t know about the HSJ awards and had no idea about how prestigious they are,” he says.

“It is very enjoyable to have hard work recognised and to have it recognised that this project is not just a little add on but has gained national recognition. That is very exciting.

“This has been a lot of work for all those involved in it. But it is great to be able to visit the trust and have staff coming up and asking when they can have another Project SEARCH student join their team, when we know there are hundreds of thousands of young people with learning disabilities out there do not get the chance to contribute to society in the same way.”

A second Project SEARCH site in Bath has since been established through a partnership between Bath College, Bath City Council and Virgin Care, based at the Bath Guildhall.

For more information on Royal United Hospitals Bath Foundation Trust’s winning entry visit HSJ Solutions

The HSJ Awards 2019 are now open for entries. For more information on the Workforce Initiative of the Year category visit