Festival of Learning Spaces: 'Similarities and Differences: project comparison of two leading SEN facilities' by Catherine Mulley

8 July 2020

The inaugural Festival of Learning Spaces provides a welcome opportunity for the education community to come together and share best practice, as schools and colleges across the country begin to find their feet again following the disruption caused by COVID-19.

It’s a privilege to be hosting a webinar at the online festival alongside our established partner Galliford Try; discussing our collaborative work in the education sector over the past four years. Our fruitful relationship is based on a mutual understanding of individual strengths and has delivered numerous schools so far.

Shared principles

Although education has been one of Pozzoni’s core sectors for more than 30 years, we have only been building our reputation for SEN schools over the last decade; predominantly for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) - as well as social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) issues.

The over-arching principle for designing any school environment is to provide a safe and functional teaching environment for pupils and staff. When embarking on an SEN project however, we feel an added duty to create empowering and inclusive learning environments that will reduce any potential for anxiety and encourage calm among pupils.

As children and adults with ASD can often have heightened sensory experiences, we always aim to minimise any potential distractions within our SEN school environments.

Background noises, for example, can seem unbearably loud to people with ASD and risk triggering challenging behaviours. Acoustic dampening of walls and ceilings is one way of reducing the impact of external or internal sound, fostering a calmer learning environment.

Colours and patterns can also lead to heightened anxiety among pupils with ASD; so it’s important to carefully consider internal decoration and the specification of any fixtures and fittings. To this end, we have developed a tailored colour palette for SEN school interiors, as well as identifying novel systems to hide any fittings with repetitive patterns, such as shelving.

When challenging behaviours do arise, SEN buildings need to be robust in withstanding any violent outbreaks, as well as offering breakout spaces where pupils feel safe enough to unwind. Typically, our designs for SEN schools comprise classrooms separated by Independent Learning Rooms (ILRs), which offer flexibility of response to any immediate changes in the needs or behaviours of pupils.

The ability to draw on past learnings has proven key to the successful delivery of education projects on programme. Our longstanding relationship and experience with Galliford Try enables us to mobilise projects efficiently and design new schools that employ proven tactics such as offering a bespoke design tailored to each end-users requirements but utilising best practice layout solutions, for example, within classroom/ILR cluster scenarios.

Our webinar will explore the key considerations in designing and building SEN environments; comparing and contrasting two recently completed projects in London:

Vanguard School

Vanguard is a specialist secondary and sixth form free school run by the National Autistic Society (NAS) Academies Trust. The school officially opened in January 2020 and will eventually cater for up to 78 students.

The school was designed using best practice set out in Pozzoni’s ‘Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: School Design Guidance’ document, developed in close partnership with the NAS. Adhering closely to these principles, Vanguard School not only aims to offer the best education environment for autistic children and young adults, but also prepares them for life beyond school.

Due to the constraints of the site, a long and thin building form was required, which ultimately limited the space available to pupils for outdoor recreation. Pozzoni has addressed this issue by providing a first-floor roof terrace on the building, dedicated solely to sixth form pupils.

The addition of a new build community facility on site - comprising a sports hall, changing areas and a kitchen – offers pupils regular opportunities to learn from others and develop behaviours that will allow them to lead active lives in the local community in future.

Cleeve Meadow School

Cleeve Meadow School is a new teaching facility in Sidcup, Pozzoni’s first project working with the Kemnal Academies Trust. The new school handed over in June 2020 and provides specialist education for 120 children and young people aged between 11 and 19 with moderate learning difficulties and autistic spectrum disorder.

Co-located with the mainstream Cleeve Park School on a spacious site, Cleeve Meadow has been built around a central external courtyard; offering calming space to retreat from classroom activity at the heart of the school building. Bi-folding doors connect to the school’s learning resource centre, while an external first-floor terrace offers arms’ length interaction with other pupils and activity.

Cleeve Meadow School is also home to a performing arts centre, shared with Cleeve Park School. The challenge here was to encourage interactions between pupils from both schools, without compromising the security of SEN pupils. Pozzoni designed the building to discourage natural journeys into Cleeve Meadow School, providing more control of the overall pupil experience.

You can hear more from Catherine Mulley in conversation with Claire Jackson, Education Director at Galliford Try, by signing up to the Festival of Learning Spaces webinar here.