A landmark report setting out a new roadmap for the procurement, design and delivery of special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) schools has been released today, pooling the knowledge of a cross-sector group of experts from local government, education, construction, and design.
Some 15 per cent of the pupil population - around 1.3 million school age students in England - is classed as having a SEND requirement, and the number is forecast to rise. In 2019, the government announced an additional investment of £700 million into special needs education to ensure that children and young people are provided with the buildings and facilities that are right for them.
However, despite the improved investment, councils continue to face immense pressures in providing care and support and educational provision for children and young people with special needs and disabilities.
The Building Better Futures report authored by UK construction leaders Morgan Sindall Construction is informed by independent research featuring insights and recommendations from representatives from local authorities in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire; head teachers from leading SEND schools across the region; architects, designers, and consultants with extensive SEND school delivery experience; representatives from national bodies including the National Autistic Society; and parental support groups including Sensational Families.
The report explores models of best practice in SEND school delivery and includes suggestions for shaping future design and delivery of SEND schools, which will better meet the needs of this fast-growing cohort of pupils.
Key findings from the report include:
- The knowledge gap: New platforms are needed to share knowledge gained through the delivery of SEND schools. Due to cyclical cycles of investment in SEND schools, a knowledge gap has formed and there is a lack of repeatable experience available to benchmark best practice. The sector also lacks a platform where insights and experience can be shared.
- End users need to be brought along on the journey: It’s essential to bring end users on the journey from the outset. A lack of focus on the importance of conversations between project stakeholders at the initial design and planning stage meant that headteachers often felt isolated and removed from the early stage of the process even though they often had opinions and insights which needed to be factored into the design process.
- Flexibility is essential: Creating great learning spaces for young people with SEND requires creativity and imagination. Effective building and classroom design is a crucial element in learning and schools and delivery teams need to consider a wide range of issues when it comes to creating any SEND classroom or school building.
- The design stage should be prioritised: Current SEND school build design and processes mean that there is a shortfall in the amount of time dedicated to the design stage at the start of the process. This results in undie pressure being placed on architects, teachers and other parties to make key decisions during this phase of work
- Understanding the cohort is key: Commissioners and the entire delivery team need to develop a deep understanding of the cohort in order to ensure successful delivery. This will enable an in-depth appreciation of SEND needs in individual areas and the bespoke nature of the specific challenges that each area might face. Both current and future need should be clearly and carefully assessed and a long-term view should be taken, which considers potential future shifts in care requirements and the changing needs of the cohort.
Peter Whitmore, managing director of Morgan Sindall Construction in the East of England, said: “The provision of outstanding SEND schools, which are able to respond to and meet the rapidly-changing needs of pupils, is a significant challenge for both local authorities, headteachers, and the built environment partners appointed to design and construct the schools.
We wanted to really unpack and explore what makes a great SEND school, so we brought together experts, partners, clients, collaborators, and influencers from the public and private sectors to look at the factors that make up a truly outstanding SEND school and examine how the delivery pathway could be enhanced for all stakeholders. We wanted to delve into the sector and explore all angles of delivery - from concept to colour scheme.
As a main contractor which has recently delivered six SEND schools in the East of England alone, this is a topic we are passionate about. We have a duty to ensure the built environment shapes and improves lives during, but also beyond the construction process. This is especially key when it comes to special education needs or disabilities (SEND) school design and delivery; creating places where individuals can truly thrive and fulfil their potential.”
A key research finding is the presence of a looming knowledge gap within the sector around the delivery of SEND schools, with no platforms available for head teachers or those commissioning schools to collaborate share their learnings and experience around the commission of new schools. This, coupled with a cyclical investment model that has also caused a lack of repeatable experience to benchmark results, has left headteacher and school leaders without access to valuable peer experience and examples of best practice to emulate.
The report calls for the formation of a collaborative knowledge sharing platform, where headteachers and organisations looking to commission new school buildings can share their experiences for others to learn from – creating an effective method of benchmarking, where examples of innovation and best practice can be explored and communicated within the SEND community.
Peter Whitmore said: “Bringing together knowledge, experience and expertise from across the public and private sector to explore opportunities to build on experience and improve the provision of purpose-built SEND schools across the UK has been at the heart of this report.
Our objective for this research is to start fruitful conversations which enable the sector to work collaboratively to enhance the pathway for SEND school design and delivery so that it improves the lives of the young people, teachers, carers and families.”