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Designing Special Education Needs and Disability Schools with Barker

11th June 2021

Designing Special Education Needs and Disability Schools with Barker

Barker has a wealth of experience in designing, building and constructing special education needs and disability schools. Our vast portfolio has catered for a range of innovative and inclusive designs. To understand our approach, and what considerations must be made, we sat down with Barker Partner and Architect, Richard Paynter to learn more.

Hi Richard, can you tell me how you go about designing a SEND school?

I think the most important thing when considering this type of project is that we are designing for a hugely diverse group of people, all with varying needs.

The first challenge is to understand the cohort of children that the facility is welcoming. The second is to understand that the needs of the pupils will change on a year-by-year basis as new pupils arrive with their individual and specific requirements. Unlike mainstream education, you can’t predict what the exact requirements will be at any time, so designing with flexibility is really important.

In the broadest sense, the Department for Education categorises SEND facilities by ambulant and non-ambulant provision in their Building Bulletin 104: Area Guidelines for SEND and Alternative Provision. Ambulant provision is generally designed for pupils without major mobility challenges, including those with types of autism or those experiencing social and emotional difficulties. Non-ambulant provision caters for pupils with mobility issues that need specialist facilities and equipment. Again, there is considerable diversity here, including wheelchair users and those with severe mobility challenges, with some pupils largely confined to a bed and requiring highly specialised equipment such as horizontal learning stations. It is not unusual for pupils to have multiple requirements across different categories adding further complexity to the range of needs. It is therefore essential to fully understand the type of requirements that we need to provide for. The nature and culture of the education provider should also be carefully considered in the design of SEND facilities as there are different approaches to teaching pupils with special educational needs.  

What are some of the key features of your SEND portfolio?

Learning spaces within a SEND educational environment tend to include a wider variety of spatial qualities compared with a traditional setup. To cater for the diversity of need, as well as the main classrooms, you would typically provide a large number of very carefully designed break out spaces. These range from rooms designed to provide sensory stimulation using specialist lighting, acoustic and textural equipment, to rooms that are quiet and calm, to provide safe space to withdraw to. That gives some insight into the extensive range of performance criteria. 

As designers, we also have to be sensitive to everyday equipment and components that could be a distraction to somebody with sensory sensitivities – for example a light fixture that hums or flickers or certain finishes with distinct patterns and lines. All of these design features can be severely distracting and sometimes disturbing to some pupils.

A good relationship between inside and outside spaces is also important. This requires a suitably designed outdoor environment that doesn’t present the students with any risk. This may be as simple as a door from a classroom directly into a suitable outside play area or a calm and quiet space such as a walled garden with flora and fauna.

Is there a notable SEN project that stands out for you?

 We have a really interesting initiative in development at the moment. After we finished the construction of four new classrooms to assist in consolidating a split-site SEND school, the client came engaged us on another project. They had become acutely aware of the lack of opportunities for young adults leaving SEND secondary school education and transitioning into employment. As a result, they launched the Market Field Farm project, a vocational college dedicated to supporting young adults with special education needs in their transition from education into employment and independent adult life.

The Market Field Farm is in the early stages of its development, with a delivery time frame of around 18 months to 2 years. The project has been supported by a generous benefactor who has secured a 43-acre agricultural property on which the facility can be located. The project seeks to provide vocational training facilities and semi-assisted living accommodation for young adults leaving SEND secondary education and eco-holiday lets within a biologically diverse and sustainable environment.

This will provide a huge array of opportunities to help young adults transition into employment and independent living. From hospitality training within the eco-holiday lets, to retail training in the onsite farm shop, and agricultural training while growing produce in the gardens. Students can also get involved in the planning and construction process of the estate itself.

There is a real lack of structured support for adults with special education needs in the UK, so it’s an honour for us to be working on this project. Watch this space for more info!

Can you tell me about the latest innovations in SEND design?

One field that is emerging, not only in SEND design but across many different construction sectors, is the introduction of biophilic design to create environments that offer a more natural and inherent connection to nature. Biophilic design employs direct natural features such as extensive internal planting, including green walls with plants and mosses, natural finishes such as timber and natural fabrics, and also visual connectivity and access to natural outdoor spaces. There’s a huge body of research that suggests that this has demonstrable mental health benefits for everyone, including pupils with special educational needs.

Thank you, Richard!