Planning a new SEND building

Written by: Gareth Barber | Published:
Key advice: Keelman’s Way School recently undertook building work to create new facilities for its pupils (both images)

Developing new facilities and buildings to cater for pupils with SEN and disabilities can be a challenge for schools. Gareth Barber discusses the requirements, offers expert advice, and looks at a case study of one school’s building project

Government figures show that the number of students with SEN in England stands at well over 1.2 million, including more than 235,000 (about 2.8 per cent of the student population) who have Statements of SEN or a new Education, Health and Care Plan.

Meanwhile, statistics from the Disabled Living Foundation show that there are 770,000 disabled children under the age of 16 in the UK – equating to one in 20 children.

These figures bring home the fact that buildings for education are required to meet a huge list of requirements, something which is increasingly important to be aware of as schools face growing demand for places in line with the rising school population and rising government targets.

Pressure is on, constantly, for schools to deliver enriching, flexible spaces that appropriately meet diverse pupil needs. And whether a school is seeking to boost provision for its SEN pupils or is a dedicated SEN campus, special needs require additional (sometimes complex) considerations.

The first thing schools need to do is research. As is probably expected, there are rules and regulations, standards to be met and a wide spectrum of needs to be considered. There can be no hard and fast rules for what an SEN build requires, because it will no doubt have to meet a huge and diverse array of needs and every project will be different.

Where to start

Within your school you must ensure that there is a clear project plan from the outset, which means assigning appropriate roles and responsibilities (consideration needs to be given here as to who has final say on budgets and specification). It is also crucial that all aims and objectives are set out early on. This means generating a basic list of requirements in line with the knowledge you have of your school’s expenditure, pupil split and their accompanying needs.

Building Bulletin 102 – Designing for Disabled Children and Children with SEN (published by the then DCSF but republished by the Education Funding Agency in 2014) advises you to develop your project brief through a series of discussions between “the client” (often, though not always, the local authority) and key stakeholders, specialists and the assigned project team. This might include:

  • Local authority officers, SEN and disability building or children’s services.
  • Health professionals, therapists and relevant professional bodies.
  • Disability organisations.
  • Technical specialists.
  • Subject specialists.
  • Parents, carers and children.

This process of inclusive consultation will limit opportunity for challenges and pitfalls as the project develops. The appropriate input at this stage ensures that the final result is a building or space that fulfils all relevant needs.

Key consideration: Accessibility

This is the obvious but significant consideration, especially if your space is planned as a flexible or multi-use room/building. Children need the room to participate in solo and group activities that may include them using walking aids, wheelchairs and more. This can be addressed through a variety of features from ramps and low-level thresholds for wheelchairs and/or buggies, to adjusted doorways.

While accessibility is a requirement, it is important to try and address it in a way that offers pupils the opportunity to be as comfortable, confident and independent as possible. Ideally, those pupils that are able to should be able to use as many of the facilities as possible without assistance (naturally this depends on the complexity of their needs). This is addressed with multi-height handrails/supports, low-level storage and multi-level door and cupboard handles. This retains a sense of inclusivity for all pupils, no matter what age or learning level.

Key consideration: Comfort and adaptation

How the building “feels” and functions – as well as how it looks – is hugely important. An SEN build might need to adapt several times in a single day to fit to pupils’ individual needs, so your building should take into account sensory as well as practical elements.

In line with this priority, you should consider the impact of elements such as lighting and acoustics on pupils with particular sensitivities.

Bespoke features can aid this, such as glare-free or remote controlled lighting and sound-proofing to eliminate exterior or neighbouring room noise.

Flooring, too, is a primary way in which buildings can meet evolving requirements and deliver against these sensory challenges. Changes in flooring type can be used to create “zones”, outlining separate areas and learning environments for differing uses.

This zoning can include indoor and outdoor spaces making sure ramped and stepped spaces are clear. There are also a number of options for textured flooring types to aid this transition from one zone into another, making it clear if a space is for messy play or quiet time and so on.
However, attention must be paid to avoid too much pattern or high shine flooring, as this can cause confusion for pupils with visual impairments (as mentioned in the Building Bulletin 102 advice).

Consider heating and ventilation in this section of your plans too. Bear in mind that some pupils may not be able to communicate their needs, so intelligent heating and lighting options can address multiple challenges effectively, keeping rooms at comfortable temperatures and ensuring you minimise glare or excessive brightness.

Key consideration: Practical specifications

Many of these are not restricted to SEN builds, rather schools in general, but it is worth considering at length any small features which can be specified to maximise the use and flexibility of the space to suit wide-ranging needs.

These range from slip resistant flooring and accessible storage options to the inclusion of specialist bathroom facilities. Another consideration is the ease with which children can access outdoor spaces and activities. Use of bi-fold doors, canopies and sliding walls can ensure accessibility and increased functionality for pupils.

When considering overall layout and design, it is important that weight-bearing and structural reinforcements are considered when the use of hoists, wall-mounted handles and grab rails may be necessary.

Ultimately, there are numerous ways in which a project can be tailored to meet an array of SEN specifications. Schools are encouraged to look into funding options too, as improvements or new builds (especially those that meet increasing environmental standards) could be eligible for various forms of funding.

Many schools look to the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) to ensure the buildings they are seeking to construct are created using the highest standards of sustainability and environmental care. BREEAM measures sustainable value through a number of categories, which are assessed at various stages and, ultimately, an overall rating is awarded to the project.

Advice from Keelman’s Way School

We asked for some insights from an SEN school to assist those that may be embarking on a new project or refurbishment of SEN facilities. Keelman’s Way School in South Tyneside is a special school that provides early years, primary and secondary education for children with severe, profound and complex learning difficulties. Paula Selby, headteacher at Keelman’s Way, had this advice for other schools seeking to embark on a build or extension of SEN facilities:

Save time and cost, without cutting corners

“We examined several options, but our first impression was how expensive this process was. So, we took advice from other relevant organisations – in our case, a disability sports group. We knew the job needed doing well but within certain parameters. We also capitalised on working with partners that could handle all elements of the brief between them, minimising additional third party involvement and costs.”

Consider everyone that might use your building

“All schools embarking on a project of this kind must factor in all the potential uses of their space and its ability to meet those varied needs. We invested time in deciding exactly what we wanted to achieve and how the end layout would work. We factored in the joint usage we had planned for the building to ensure all requirements to facilitate that flexibility were met at the planning stage.”

Have some contingency

“Our experience is that there will be things you do not expect throughout this process. We encountered having to pay extra money to the local authority to ensure the building had sufficient capacity to supply the power. Though unexpected, this was resolved. The lesson is, there may be additional considerations that catch you by surprise – so be prepared.”

  • Gareth Barber is from The Stable Company, designers, manufacturers and installers of bespoke timber frame buildings for education. Visit

Further information

  • Designing for Disabled Children and Children with Special Educational Needs: Guidance for mainstream and special schools (Building Bulletin 102), Education Funding Agency, March 2014: (originally published by the former DCSF).
  • BREEAM (Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method) guidelines and information:

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