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On International Women's Day we hear the story about one women's mission to get 10,000 young people with learning disabilities and autism into work in the next decade.

Claire Cookson is one of the principal voices for supported employment in the UK and an inspirational female leader who, as CEO of DFN Project SEARCH, is leading the charge to help thousands of young people with learning disabilities and autism progress into full-time paid jobs over the next decade.

It's no easy task for Claire and her team with national statistics showing that just 5.6 per cent of people with a learning disability or autism who known to local authorities in work and the remaining 94 percent "unfortunately, and disappointedly, dropping off a cliff after leaving education,"" said Claire, who has made it her personal mission to challenge the status quo and support these young adults into the workplace.

"We want to get 10,000 people into jobs in the next 10 years and 20,000 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 across the country and raise aspiration. 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 continued.

"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 learning needs. My work is not done yet here. There is so much that we want to achieve and I really want to be part of creating this lasting change. Systematic change, that's what I'm looking for. We need to reach the point where there is a presumption of employment for all, and a society where it is normal and expected that people with an array of learning styles and skills are equally recognised and celebrated across all employment sectors . I am not going to stop until we've got so many thousands and thousands of people with learning disabilities and autism getting jobs a year."

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 internships 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 per cent of its 477 interns secured a paid job with 262 of those young people moving into full time, 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 during the crisis," Claire said.

"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 the virus. Society has been forced to reassess what we consider key and essential roles to be 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 industries 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 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.

Claire worked her way up to the role of Associate Headteacher at Woodlands School, a broad-spectrum Special School, before joining the DFN Charitable Foundation in 2019 and, shortly after, taking over the reins of DFN Project SEARCH in April 2020.

"While at Woodlands, I gave a presentation at the Department for Education around employment and curriculum design. It was there that I met David Forbes-Nixon, the chairman of DFN foundation. He spoke to me about the ambition the foundation had to spread the growth of support internships and I just thought, 'Oh my goodness! That drive, passion and the ambition to scale it up in that way – it was everything that I believed in," Claire explained.

"If I had stayed at Woodlands, I could have only impacted on the lives of those who were at school. Whereas at the DFN Foundation, I am responsible for executing DFN Project SEARCH's long-term strategic goal of getting thousands of young adults with learning difficulties and autism into full-time paid jobs."

Under Claire's leadership, the charity achieved a Net Promotor Score of 66.5 per cent in 2020 which according to Bain & Co. an NPS of 50+ is regarded as Excellent and 70+ 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 per cent agree that the programme is high aiming, 95 per cent said that the programme achieves great results and that 94 per cent believe the programme is committed to continued improvement.

This, Claire said, is a 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. This includes a host of fantastic women, from DFN staff and job coaches to interns, who continue to inspire me daily and I would like to give a special nod to them on this year's International Women's Day. We saw another yearly increase in the number of young women enrolling in our programmes last year and, as we work toward our ambitious target, I am excited to see more female graduates going on to do wonderful things."