- Insights

24TH January 2024

Designing an SEN School: What We’ve Learned So Far

Claire Mantle

24TH January 2024


ADP works across many mainstream and specialist schools. This experience has shown us the essential role that architecture and design can play in making schools more inclusive and accessible to a much greater proportion of the pupil population, including neurodivergent pupils. Simple, carefully considered changes can have an almost immediate effect.

Of course, each child and every school is different, and our work rests on building an understanding of school staff, pupils, parents, and communities, and putting them at the centre of our thinking. This work has given us a detailed understanding of the range of factors that can affect people with SEND and the design challenges we face.

Last year we visited five of our SEN schools, (one complete, two recently complete, two on site). This insight discusses the biggest challenges we’ve found through our experience of designing schools for children with additional needs and disabilities. The schools visited were:

High Point Academy
A 90-place school for all children with Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC), Moderate Learning Difficulties (MLD), and Speech, Language, and Communication Needs (SLCN.)

Rivertree Free School
A 200-place school for pupils with PMLD (profound and multiple learning disability), ASD (autism spectrum disorder) MLD and SLD with ages ranging from nursery to post-16. Currently on site and due to open in September 2024.

Elm Tree Primary Academy
A primary SEN school on the same site as High Point Academy with a focus on ASD and Social, Emotional, and Mental Health (SEMH).

Bloxham Grove Academy
A 100-place school for students with a range of special educational needs and disabilities, including Cognition and Learning needs, ASC, and SEMH needs. For pupils of ages ranging from nursery to post-16. Due to open in January 2024.

The Heights Academy
A 116-place school for students with ASC and associated SEMH needs.

Design Challenges: Understanding the children; their age, and their needs

SEN schools have a vast diversity in age and need. Both of these things create a complex approach to design, no single design solution can work for everyone. As architects, we aim to design a building that allows children to develop independence so that they feel confident and comfortable within their surroundings. This is one of the most important and straightforward ways to reduce daily frustration.

At Bloxham Grove Academy we designed classroom clusters to reflect the restorative behaviour needs. The layouts of the classroom and breakout spaces have been developed from an understanding of a transitional strategy used by the Trust. Pupils that have left a class are re-integrated via a process of moving through a series of calming spaces. The careful design of thresholds and transitional spaces is key to ensuring pupils can move easily between rooms, reducing levels of anxiety and allowing the restorative effect to work. The use of external spaces and landscape was also fundamental to this process, with nature helping to create a peaceful, calming, and therapeutic environment.

There will be times when pupils with ASD want to retreat and have time on their own, so it may be appropriate for classrooms to have adjacent ’quiet’ rooms for reading and respite, and to incorporate quiet seating areas off corridors. This principle can be adapted in mainstream schools, by creating a SEN base that is safe and provides a series of different spaces inside and outside for calming, therapy, seclusion, and low stimuli.

The start of school can be very important for pupils with ASD, setting the tone of the day. The transition from drop-off to desk in particular should be free from distractions and obstructions.

At The Heights Academy, the arrival is separated into three points: secondary-age children, primary-age children, and community. The community arrival is welcoming, and safe and includes a family room for parents, and a place to access support. The primary and secondary school entrances are separate, removing chance encounters. Secondary school students come into a secure lobby where they handover their bags into a locker zone immediately with the primary school entrance positioned separately to the rear of the site.

Design Challenges: The challenges of two-storey buildings and external play

The DfE budgets for SEN schools are higher, however, they assume a two-storey design. The challenge of a two-storey SEN school is implementing an external classroom to all classrooms which enables all children to have the same independent experience.

We explored introducing balconies at the first floor, however, there are challenges with these being inclusive spaces, and from our experience working with schools and educationalists, they are not always a safe approach for children with SEN. Our design solution is to create specialist spaces on the first floor with courtyards at ground-level that can be viewed from above.

At Rivertree Free School the challenge of aligning the brief (cohort numbers), site constraints (a sloped approach), and cost model (two-storey building) resulted in an ‘Options Appraisal’ exercise at the early concept stage. This was an important intervention in the design process which allowed the brief to be refined and the design to evolve to capture the needs of the Trust and county. The chosen option located PMLD at ground floor level with ASC positioned in their own ‘wing’ that had a dedicated entrance. The progression of key stages through the building was maintained in a logical arrangement from Early Years up to Post 16.

Design Challenges: Creating internal spaces for children to thrive

To create a safe internal environment, we focus our approach on the sensory experience, considering colour, acoustics, light, heat.

At Rivertree Free School the corridors are oversized with clear exits
out to the central courtyard. The colour scheme reflects earth tones in the circulation (clay and browns) and signage is kept simple and clear.

In terms of light, it’s important to avoid direct sunlight into a space, or reflections that could be a cause of distraction, particularly for ASC pupils due to their sensitivity. When designing a new build, it’s possible to orient your building in a way that avoids solar glare, while also making use of shading and trees.

High levels of noise can also pose a challenge for people with ASD. Deadening reverberations within a learning environment can be vital here, and as architects, we specify products that are particularly good at absorbing sound when designing an inclusive classroom.

Simple landmarks that help pupils to orient themselves can play a really important role in aiding independent navigation, as well as signage that is simple, visual, clear and relevant.

Natural, textured materials make inside spaces as comfortable as possible, perhaps creating a sensory pathway through the school. Visuals should not be overstimulating, ‘less is more’.

Incorporating flexibility into the design of internal spaces will enable the schools to adapt and evolve as required.

High-Point Academy completed in 2021 and we recently carried out a Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) to understand how the school was working. Since the design process, there has been a change in the Trust and headteacher, resulting in changes to how they use the school. Our flexible design meant the school was able to successfully adapt the intervention spaces for a new use as different activity areas for the children to choose to spend time in.

With all students, it’s fundamental to ensure they feel a sense of belonging to their school. We always involve an element of co-design with students where possible, something we see schools doing themselves in increasingly creative ways.

Design Challenges: Providing outdoor space that inspires and calms

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of nature when designing an SEN school. We always seek to understand how we can integrate the natural environment into the learning environment as much as possible. Outdoor spaces relieve stress and anxiety, help develop social skills, and motivate learning – particularly for those with special educational needs.

For all of our SEN schools we have created a landscape strategy that is driven by the desire to create a safe and stimulating learning environment.

At Bloxham Grove Academy we created small individual garden spaces that act as gathering points when pupils arrive, and provide breakout spaces outside each classroom. These areas also work as defensible spaces helping pupils to feel safe without having to integrate directly into the main playground. Shaded areas are distributed throughout the landscape and a sensory garden provides a quiet and relaxing place for small groups. There is also an enclosure to accommodate the school dogs that are used as part of the schools therapy strategy.

During the design stages of our work at High-Point Academy, there were concerns of safety within the outdoor space and external design elements such as ‘trim trails’ were removed. These are now being installed in a safe and thoughtful way. Children thrive off nature and challenging themselves physically outside, so it was important not to pull back on external design. 

Concluding Thoughts

As four of these schools open in the coming months, we will learn more about how they are used, how the spaces adapt and how we can find further solutions to these design challenges. It is also useful to take some of these lessons learned on specialist schools and apply them to mainstream schools. This will support a more inclusive approach to school design generally, improving the wellbeing and everyday lives of all pupils.

Claire Mantle was recently featured in the following publications:

With a bit of vision, we can upgrade the school estate (schoolsweek.co.uk)
SEND: Affordable ways to create enabling environments (feweek.co.uk)
We must put inclusivity and accessibility at the heart of school design | Opinion | Building Design (bdonline.co.uk)
Building inclusive schools | LocalGov

Written by:

Schools Sector Director
Claire Mantle

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  • Telephone: 0121 234 6440

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