Design thinking to boost the SEND system

Design thinking to boost the SEND system

The provision of state-funded education to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in the UK is in crisis. With unexpectedly large – and rising – numbers of pupils with complex needs, and educational outcomes remaining poor, the SEND system is failing the current generation of children.

These problems are difficult to resolve, as the Government’s latest Green Paper Right support, Right place, Right time acknowledges. The needs of children with SEND, especially those with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP), are complex and multi-faceted, and so meeting them responsibly and sustainably is distinctly challenging.

To complicate matters, while the prevalence of most categories of need have remained relatively constant, others – autistic spectrum disorder, speech, language and communications needs, and social, emotional and mental health issues – have increased in recent years. For a minimally resilient publicly funded system that depends on long-term planning to ensure the supply of trained teachers and suitable facilities, this unpredictability has taken it to breaking point.

This is exactly what Bristol City Council (BCC) realised back in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. With a duty to educate all local children, their SEND provision was already under pressure. Numbers had swelled and the mix of needs had changed to the point where the shortfall in SEND places within their own boundaries was at 200 and rising. The practice of bussing children to other authorities was not only comparatively expensive but far from satisfactory to the children and families concerned, and so a solution was desperately needed.

BCC invited us, as problem-solving architects with a deep experience of designing schools, to explore whether it was possible to halt this trend by sweating their existing assets a little more. (BCC also pursued parallel initiatives to train up and recruit staff with relevant SEND teaching qualifications, which of course is another critical part of the equation.)

At Shirehampton Primary School in Bristol, this Victorian gym (store) was converted into two SEND classrooms, group room and accessible WC.

Deeper conversations to collaborate

We reviewed condition surveys and interviewed the heads of thirty local schools to identify opportunities for creating new SEND spaces within the council’s existing schools estate through alterations, conversions and extensions. In just two months we identified 500 potential places, assessed their suitability, matched them to actual local need, and sketched out design solutions.

Moving equally quickly, BCC’s framework partner Skanska appointed us to deliver our designs in small works packages for a series of quick wins, creating 60 new SEND places in just 9 months. (There is potential for more, but realising these would involve larger projects, which of course are harder and slower to greenlight.)

A wake up for Local Education Authorities

Unsurprisingly, the success of this project has attracted attention from other local authorities. We have already been involved in equivalent work for Southampton and Leicester City Councils, serving as delivery architects on seven more projects to create SEND places, and of course are ready and willing to do many more.

Small interventions. Big results.

Finding space is just the start. Turning it into successful SEND places within the value-for-money constraints of public provision is an altogether different challenge. Fortunately, our team is steeped in current policy and best practice, and are able to eke out long-term sustainable value with minimal resources.

While not the only factor determining the creation of SEND places, the quality of physical spaces is still significant. Their layout, functionality, and aesthetics, and their various environmental control systems (e.g. for daylighting and acoustics) support pupils, teachers and school policy, effectively setting the scene for good outcomes.

Being responsive to needs

Importantly, the needs of pupils differ and must be accommodated in the design. At the award-winning Deaf Academy, for example, our numerous subtle design interventions are harmoniously resolved. Sensory stimulation is modulated. The acoustics are suitably attenuated. Sightlines are unobstructed to abet sign language communication. The lighting design minimises glare. Corridors are largely free of corners with obstructed views and are wide enough to allow two signers to chat side by side while another person passes.

Improving mainstream for SEND

Of course, pupils with SEND are more usually taught in mainstream schools. Here, the business-as-usual SEND solutions – ‘units’ that are separate and clustered by the entrance, or the more recent ‘inclusion spaces’ – too often exacerbate the risk of stigmatisation for affected pupils. As we began to explore at Ysgol Bae Baglan, SEND facilities should instead be at the heart of the school community, integrated and normalised in a truly inclusive way.

Bespoke versus Standardised

Applying best practice in SEND design in the public sector is frequently frustrated by the understandable quest for standardisation. Our experience from the Department for Education’s MMC 1 and Spec 21 schools frameworks highlighted the difficulty, suggesting an opportunity to carry out R&D into incorporating considered SEND modules into the overall kit of parts.

Although thoughtful building design cannot end the crisis in SEND provision on its own, it is nonetheless a critical part of the solution. In the hands of experienced architects, it can influence behaviour, nudge action, support objectives, and so foster success. As we proved in Bristol, Southampton and Leicester, the same complex problem-solving skills can also be used to improve the overall system’s efficiency at the level of the entire estate, and could be directed at better offsite solutions.

Making a positive difference is far from straightforward. It will require collaboration from the whole ecosystem of stakeholders to overcome barriers and develop confidence in resulting solutions. However, we owe it to this and future generations of young people, their teachers and administrators to try.

You can catch our Head of Schools & Colleges, Danny Harris speaking at Education Estates on Tuesday 18th October 2022: Adapting Design for all SEND Requirements. He’ll be sharing more thoughts on SEND design and showcasing our latest Inhabitant film: The Deaf Academy which features staff and students sharing their thoughts on architecture to support communication, learning, friendship, independence, and equality.

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