The impact of design within SEN Schools

an environment that both inspires young people and provides the ideal backdrop to nurture lifelong learning experiences for the children who learn there

The Aspire School in Sittingbourne is a primary school for 168 children with special educational needs and was founded with an ambition to transform the opportunities of many young people with Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) and severe speech and language difficulties (SSLD.)

The design was developed – in close collaboration with the Grove Park Academies Trust -following an in-depth review of a number of SEN schools and their facilities, with the aim of achieving the most important objective: to create an environment that both inspires young people and provides the ideal backdrop to nurture lifelong learning experiences for the children who learn there – going beyond design excellence and embedding an holistic understanding of how buildings can enhance the day-to-day life of their users, as well as focusing on sustainable and environmentally-responsive design.

Caroline Gibbs, SEN design expert, commented: “The design of the school aims to provide a cohesive and inspiring educational facility. The learning experience of those with learning difficulties can be greatly enhanced by removing distractions and providing a safe, structured environment alongside clear routines in the classroom.

The elements of comfort, relaxation, motivation and inspiration are all essential to the SEN learning experience and must be considered if pupils are going to engage with, and enjoy, the environment they are within whilst helping them to feel safe.”

The smooth transition through the school years was a key driver for the design concept. It was paramount that the pupils’ learning environment was replicated when they moved up and through the school – in order to ease the overwhelming impact of change which can have a negative impact on a pupil’s learning journey. Based on this, each classroom has direct access to: outside, a toilet, a quiet room, a staff workroom and a coat/lunch storage space. This was a very specific requirement, which assisted the staff in their working day and the pupils’ learning experience.

Having a direct toilet access provides privacy and easy supervision, whilst balancing pupils’ needs for privacy and dignity. The storage space for coats and lunch bags assists with the challenges associated with clutter and allows the classroom to be non-distracting and uncluttered.  Having each classroom with a staff work room, allows for passive supervision onto the circulation and within the classroom;  which is invaluable support to pupil and staff.

The school benefits from large classrooms with plenty of natural light and easy access to outdoor learning: being outdoors, in open quiet spaces whilst being secure, relieves stress and anxiety; this allows children to develop better social skills and to feel more in touch with their natural surroundings – providing children with visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning.

Pupils with ASC often have sensory overload; for example l which was also something that influenced the overall design. Part of the brief was to make sure that the kitchen was located away from the main school, which limited the impact of smell. This knowledge came directly from a visit to another school which provided valuable lessons from its central hall being in the middle of the building.

The school environment needed to be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of special needs and yet adaptable enough to be able to respond to a changing school population.

Anxiety can stem from a variety of situations – from not understanding the building’s layout and the locations of fire escapes to being anxious about using pressure-push taps.
The design avoids mixed-use, open-plan or shared spaces as students with ASD can develop anxiety about what a space is to be used for.

The Aspire School will open its doors for the first term in September and we are excited about the new opportunities that this will bring for pupils in the Swale area.

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