Inclusion, integration & design implications for schools

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It has been recognised by Government and society as a whole that it is imperative that the education of our children provides equality for all, no matter what the child’s gender, religion, racial ethnicity, physical or cognitive abilities. The Building Schools for Future (BSF) programme, which is well underway, will provide schools for decades to come. With this substantial investment in education it is essential to ensure that these schools are as inclusive as possible, enabling all, including those with profound disabilities, whose physical requirements go beyond the minimum standard, access to educational establishments equally.

There are many factors which determine the way in which a building, premises or environment is built, commissioned, altered and operated. If you are an education provider, service provider or an employer you will want to know how the Disability Discrimination Act affects you and how you can best respond to ensure that your interests are met within affordable costs. If you are a designer, BSF provider or contractor providing facilities both physical and operational, you will need to be sure that what you are providing will give the security to your client of a flexible building for the 21stCentury. Furthermore, you will want to have confidence that any investment in this respect will produce results and provide an inclusive education for all.


The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) makes it illegal to discriminate against a disabled person on the grounds of their disability in respect of employment, education, transport and the provision of goods and services. The Act offers protection to all disabled people who enter a school, whether as a pupil, visitor, to work, or as an adult education student.

The DDA 2005 duties now require statutory authorities and those who represent them to ensure equality in all of their functions and provide an Equality Scheme explaining their approach and consultations undertaken.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) made changes to the existing framework for children with SEN and placed anti-discrimination duties on schools, colleges, universities and providers of adult education. Planning duties require that progressive improvements should be ongoing and that these should relate to changes in circumstance and demographics. SENDA came into force in 2002; therefore measures should be well on the way to achieving a more strategic long term approach for improving access within schools. The disability discrimination duties provide protection for disabled pupils by preventing discrimination against them at school and on the grounds of their disability. There are two key duties:

  • not to treat disabled pupils less favourably
  • to take reasonable steps to avoid putting them at a substantial disadvantage. This is known as the reasonable adjustment duty.

Reasonable adjustments, interestingly, do not apply to auxiliary aids and services because it is anticipated that in schools in the maintained sector such provision will be made through the SEN framework, nor are physical alterations as this is intended to be achieved through a more strategic long term approach for improving access to school buildings through the planning duties.

There is however an expectation that new buildings will provide accessibility levels appropriate to the anticipated users and progressive improvements should relate to changes in circumstance and population changes.  This is the main area of confusion. What are reasonable measures?

The planning duties require Education Authorities to draw up and accessibility strategies and schools to draw up accessibility plans to improve access to education at schools over time. There are three main elements:

  • improvements in access to the curriculum
  • physical improvements to increase access to education and associated services
  • improvements in the provision of information in a range of formats for disabled pupils

These planning duties, as with the DDA, are evolving and require to be continually reviewed both in terms of policies, practices, procedures and premises. In relation to physical aspects of premises it is important for the building and surroundings to reflect possible changes which might be required during the life of the school and changes to the school’s population.

Additionally, the SEN framework makes an increasing assumption that children with special educational needs will be taught in mainstream schools. This increases parents’ access to information and requires LEAs, maintained schools and others to assess and make provisions for disabled children.

Disabled pupils over the age of 16 who are taught within schools are covered within the duties required by schools. However, where further education for adults is being provided by a school then they are treated in a similar manner to the DDA.


The definition of disability includes people with physical, sensory, or cognitive impairments and those with mental or other health issues. This could be a member of staff, a parent, pupil or a sportsman using school facilities.  It is estimated that over 10 million adults in the UK have a disability and that there are a further 700,000 disabled children. Recently published figures show that nationally 3% of all pupils are statemented and 14% have a special educational need but no statement. However, having a statement does not necessarily mean that a pupil has a disability and being disabled does not automatically mean that the pupil would have a statement.

Given that the majority of disabled children are born with a disability, which is not the case with the majority of disabled people, many children will have profound and (or) multiple disabilities. There has also been a rise in the numbers of children who have either emotional behavioural disorders or come from the autistic or Aspergers spectrum.

How Does a School Meet the Duties for its Premises?

In my capacity as an Access Consultant I consider factors that influence the built environment and the process to ensure reasonable inclusion. Initially, a risk assessment regarding liabilities in respect of service delivery, duties to employees and access to the curriculum relating to disabled people should be undertaken, to the extent of identifying an individual child’s need, as well as those of other users of the school. This process should also identify any impending changes in legislation and regulation.

Furthermore, it is essential to identity relevant legislation and current best practice guidance relating to your premises. Whilst there are no strict technical criteria against which the DDA can be judged, there are guidance documents to assist in this process.

It must be remembered that Part M of the Building Regulations is a minimum requirement and does not necessarily meet the responsibilities required by the DDA. The DDA is based upon individual needs; therefore, design criteria should reflect function.
For example, criteria for classroom areas may vary from those of sports facilities. Sports areas should reflect Sport England guidance. It must also be borne in mind that what would suit a child may not be appropriate for an adult.

Statutory duties require that consultation is undertaken and evidence should be given in the Equality Scheme required for every school. It is advisable to consult disabled staff, users and parents; they are the public face of the school and can often identify good and bad practice, helping to ensure that reasonable measures are put in place.

Having confirmed the risks and established performance criteria, it is sensible to construct an appropriate audit/design model incorporating data collection. This model should be employed when planning either refurbishment works or new build and will influence any briefing documents. It should then be used to monitor the design and construction of the school.


The legislation requires that the curriculum, social activities, access to goods and services and employment is provided in an equal manner. Within refurbished areas it is vital to comprehend the function of those spaces and their relation to the rest of the school building and grounds. Whilst it may be unfeasible to meet all good practice guidance within the existing building fabric, there will be clear requirements for upgrading to a standard ensuring that the school is inclusive. In this regard, it is essential that a pupil, visitor or member of staff is not discriminated against. This could be in terms of access, use of equipment, travel time between lessons and access to sanitary and changing facilities.

To fully identify the level of work required to meet responsibilities under the DDA, it is important to understand:

  • any brief and school population
  • third party use
  • curriculum areas (general classrooms, unique facilities?)
  • access to externals, for breaks and evacuation
  • horizontal circulation
  • vertical circulation routes
  • electrical/mechanical positions/elements
  • detailed understanding of items such as doors, toilets and those rooms with fixed equipment

It may be necessary to rationalise spaces and to provide unique facilities at an accessible level. The more accessible the school, the easier it is to timetable. If you have only one science room with the relevant equipment, can you timetable effectively? What is the cost of making more rooms accessible?

An assessment or audit of the buildings against agreed criteria should provide information to prioritise and budget on a rolling programme. It is essential that this programme is flexible and considers prospective pupils or those within the school roll. It should allow for continual improvements and recognition of changes to best practice guidance.

Key Issues in Premise Design

As with any sector there are key areas to be considered. The following topics outline those areas which may require more detailed interrogation before planning any works, writing a design brief, designing a school or commencing on site.

Infrastructure, Approach and Landscaping

For pupils, access is required not only to the curriculum but all aspects of school life, including social activities, both in school time and also out of hours. What are the major issues facing landscape designers and architects when designing educational establishments and the clients and planners when assessing the schemes? It is from the macro to the micro, from infrastructure through to the finest detail.

Given the fact that one of the most limiting and challenging factors is likely to be the existing physical environment and topography, the external spaces and integral infrastructure are one of the most important considerations. These are affected by a number of aspects, such as: the existing and required, levels, gradients, roadways, approach and operational issues.

Schools are multi-functional places which utilise the whole of their site and will require access to all services and functions provided by them. The inclusion requirements will influence the position and sitting of the buildings and should be considered early in the process, incorporating agreement on the principles of levels and locations, and of key functions. This should take into account not only arrival, departure, parking and drop off points, but also access onto and across the site, to and between other buildings and functions, such as sports pitches and play areas and exiting the buildings in an emergency situation. This exercise will need to be completed for all staff, pupils and third party users. Landscape architects are crucial to this process and early involvement is essential.


How ever disabled people arrive, whether driving, being driven, cycling or walking to school, they all need equal ease of entry. For example, vehicles should be kept separate from pedestrians; that includes cycles. This means a kerb and sensible locations of dropped kerbs with tactile indicators. Accessible parking and drop off points need to be provided within the site and should be close to the main entrance/s, otherwise, cover should be provided. Imagine, you have to get out of your car, unload the wheelchair and then manoeuvre towards the entrance. It’s raining and you cannot hold the umbrella and move the wheelchair. You get very wet! Wherever possible, the parking or drop off point should be accommodated within 10-20m of any entrance.

People now use a variety of vehicles, and the BS8300 provides guidance on the space required to park and exit some of these vehicles. How your pupils/visitors are likely to arrive, and in what numbers can impact on the layout and space requirement at a school. You might need space for several cars, taxis and minibuses. If they cannot all park at the same time, is there space to wait without holding up all the traffic? Is it safe to exit from the side and rear of the vehicles?


There is a misconception that, so long as the footpath is level (1:21) it can be as long as you like. Imagine trying to wheel yourself or climb a height of over a metre; it doesn’t matter how shallow it is, you still have to climb it. Both Building Regulations and the Building Bulletins recognise this: changes in level across the site (1.2m BB91, 2m Part M) shall when the change gets too great be provided with an alternative means i.e. a mechanical lift. This has a huge impact on costings and locations of functions. Wherever possible, ensure that the main entrance is no more than 1.2m higher or lower than the pedestrian entry point. There are many sites which have changes in level which are well in excess of this; this then requires a risk assessment and an understanding of the priorities; when and where to find management solutions or ensure physical alterations.

Resting positions will still be required every 50m and even when the path is shallow you will need level platforms (1:60) in some places. These resting areas should be outside of the main pathway. Wherever possible you should aim for 1:25 slopes; this allows for minor constructional and levels errors on site and makes access easier for wheelchair users and ambulant disabled people alike.


Surface materials should be fat and even, and major routes should be constructed with materials having properties similar to tarmac or concrete paving. Different functions should use different materials. For instance, bedded gravel within a wildlife habitat allows the experience of a rougher material and is likely to be appropriate in that location but is not suitable for the pathway to the main entrance.

Grilles and gullies cause problems for many, including those using sticks as well as wheelchair users. Never put a gulley in a dropped kerb location and also ensure that there is no ponding of water. There is also clear guidance on the widths of the openings and direction of lay, when within an access route.


There are other obstructions such as lamp posts, litter bins, seats, etc. Wherever possible, these should be out of the main route and grouped together to reduce the risk.


Another area where there is little guidance is lighting. Approved document M requires 100 lux on steps and ramps and no extreme changes. This is very difficult to achieve and will relate to the circumstances of each project. Ensuring adequate light may cause problems of light overspill. Fittings might need to be lowered but unfortunately this leaves them open to vandalism. Locating major routes and facilities such as car parking away from boundaries may help. Deciding on the lighting is important and perhaps differing levels may be required. Pedestrian routes and car parking might be better at 50 lux, entrances and changes in level at 100 lux, out of the way areas, 20 lux. Isolated routes or those not used out of daylight hours could be serviced by solar powered or intumescent fittings to aid safety.


Disabled people will benefit from using wayfinding mechanisms when approaching, entering and navigating across sites. These would give guidance on the most suitable route for their needs and should be supplied in such a way that is comprehensible to all disabled people. External environments can often be frightening and confusing, especially for first time visitors. Sight and sound are the two key sensors when considering wayfinding. There are a variety of mechanisms: audio information, the use of signage and symbols, tactile maps and indicators, defined pathways, use of tonal contrast, colour coding and the use of landmarks.

It must also be recognised that some people may not understand the written word. Others, such as pupils with emotional difficulties and those with learning disabilities, may perceive their environment differently and clear simplified clues would aid access for everyone.

We must not forget play and break times: social interaction is essential for all pupils and intrinsic to learning. All pupils should be able to access play areas easily, quickly and by a similar route to their compatriots. This is also true of sports facilities and access should be provided to all sports locations for both spectating and taking part. You only have to watch the Paralympics to comprehend the variety of sports which are undertaken by disabled people.

The benefits of inclusively designed landscapes are enormous. Unfortunately, historically ensuring inclusion within our external environments has largely been ignored by all but a few. However, since the changes in legislation, the radical changes to Part M and the requirements for access statements for planning submission, external environments and landscape issues are much higher on the agenda.

The external landscape can be hugely beneficial for disabled people. Suitably designed spaces allow them to utilise all of their senses, aiding their understanding and comprehension. This allows disabled people to participate fully and provides a safe, healthy and inviting environment for all to enjoy.

Internal Arrangements

People with disabilities will have a variety of needs and limitations. Understanding these limitations will allow designers to provide a coherent and usable school for all. One of the most limiting factors is horizontal and vertical circulation. This should be viewed in terms of time travel rather than distance travel. Someone with ambulant disabilities may find long corridors daunting and time consuming, whereas, a wheelchair user may be either in a motorised chair or be strong in the upper body and therefore vertical circulation would be problematic. Time and travel distances around schools will affect timetabling and changeover times. This will require a strategic analysis of the location of curriculum areas, appropriate sanitary facilities and the correct location, size and number of lifts.

The BS8300 requires that lifts suit the anticipated density and needs of disabled people. The size 1100 x 1400mm in Building Regulations part M is a minimum lift size and indeed Part M refers to a 2000 x 1400mm, being a lift which ‘will accommodate any type of wheelchair together with several other passengers’. Part M also requires that the ‘lift sizes should therefore be chosen to suit the anticipated density of use of the building and needs of disabled people.’

Lifts are essential for vertical circulation of wheelchair users. However, they are used by a much larger population, including people with visual impairments, those with ambulant disabilities, arthritis, or with limited stamina for whom stairs could be overly time consuming or problematic.

To be able to prove that the anticipated needs have been met, a flow analysis should be completed for peak change-over times. This would require information on the school operating day and anticipated numbers of children and staff. Most people develop disabilities throughout their lives and standards such as Part M reflect their needs. However, children are in the main born with disabilities and as a result often have multiple and profound disabilities. This often requires large and cumbersome equipment that cannot be accommodated within the minimum standard lift outlined in Part M. For instance, a pupil with Muscular Dystrophy is likely to progress to a horizontal chair which could be as long as 1800mm.

Additionally, one 1100 x 1400mm lift may be unable to deal with numbers encountered during the peak time periods and this may result in delays for children reaching their class and thus discriminating against them. Moreover, in the event of lift failure the school may be rendered inaccessible and therefore be discriminatory.

To ensure an accessible school for children with severe physical disabilities, careful consideration should be given at the outset to the size and numbers of lifts provided, curriculum locations and evacuation strategies. The legislation is anticipatory and under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act it requires schools to make progressive improvements to meet anticipated demand.

How many and what size lifts are required? Too few, too small or badly located lifts could result in discrimination.

  • If a lift breaks down can the curriculum still be accessed?
  • Can they cope with the numbers encountered during the peak time periods?
  • Are they located to reduce travel distances?
  • What size is the largest chair anticipated?

Sanitary Facilities

Access to toilets is one area which cannot be ‘managed away’. Providing the appropriate size and type of facility is essential. Some children will not ft into a standard Part M toilet; schools must amend their facilities to suit individual pupils.

The important aspect to bear in mind is that there is a requirement to ensure that accessible toilets are provided at a distance of no more than 40m and located wherever there are standard facilities.

Therefore, for staff and visitors, a design review should identify the accessible facilities, providing the 1.5 x 2.2m cubicle is likely to be deemed reasonable. Often staff and pupils will not share toilets, which may mean duplicate facilities.

For pupils, what is needed is a variety of facilities to suit as many people as possible. Many disabled pupils/people are not wheelchair users and may need to quickly access standard provision without the embarrassment of having to use ‘disabled’ facilities.

Independent and assisted provision should be provided. When you are considering pupils’ needs, the school will need to look at the whole aspect of their day, including any special equipment, hygiene, physiotherapy or medical needs.

The level and type of sanitary facilities need to relate to travel distances, age of the pupils, numbers and the make-up of school population. If a pupil has a large chair with a turning circle of 1800mm they won’t ft into a standard toilet. Draft BB77 and the consultation BS8300 recommend assisted bathrooms (hygiene rooms). This will require a space of at least 3.5m x 3m.

Change facilities need to be accessible for staff, pupils and third party use. This requires accessible unisex and standard change facilities.
• How does security work? Can the facilities be used by the school and third party users simultaneously?
• Can changing facilities, for example, cope with two teams of wheelchair basketball players? Sport England guidance gives levels of accessibility against the size of facility.
• Are the change facilities located to easily access external pitches in out of hours use?

Curriculum Areas

A variety of rooms need to be accessible for a number of users: this includes the full spectrum of disability. There should be access to the curriculum allowing pupils to work alongside one another. This may include accessible fixed equipment, not just sinks and adjustable workstations, but hobs, ovens, science benches, etc.
Classrooms may also need to accommodate support staff and extra space for auxiliary aids.

Communication Systems

People can communicate in many different ways and recognise information at a variety of levels. Those with sensory impairments and learning difficulties may need different facilities. People with hearing impairments use lip reading, hearing aids, sound enhancement and sign language, or a combination. Having good acoustics and lighting are the most important elements to communication.

Sound enhancement systems come in a variety of types: loop, infra red and sound field; development is continual. Each system has its own advantage in terms of technology and usage, for instance, pupil users versus third party. Pager systems such as deaf alerter will become more common-place allowing hearing impaired people to receive information about fire alarms, messages, etc.

Signage and wayfinding should be considered throughout a site and need to follow accepted good practice, such as the Sign Design Guide. One contractor decided that to save money they would ensure that the most important signs (in their opinion) were embossed and located on the walls, but the other signs wouldn’t be. This resulted in a mixture of signs which were ineffective and unusable, apart from looking appalling.


Managing the evacuation of disabled people is the responsibility of the service provider/employer, not the fire service. The Regulatory Reform Orders outline this quite clearly and more advice can be sought from:

The fire evacuation strategy should provide personal evacuation plans for all staff and pupils and a separate evacuation plan for visitors. Evacuation measures should consider all disabilities including people with visual, hearing and physical impairments and those with learning disabilities or mental health issues. There is a push for large open flexible spaces which often removes any fire zones within a school.

Generally, the safest option is to horizontally evacuate disabled people away from danger, providing appropriate refuges and communication systems. Without the fire zones this is not possible.

There is always the possibility of a need to evacuate vertically. The fire evacuation strategy should provide for all individuals to be evacuated. I have highlighted some of the considerations below:

  • Refuges - numbers should reflect number of users and fire zones
  • Stair widths - should be able to facilitate carry down: 1600mm is recommended by the DCSF standard specification. Landings should be large enough for mechanical carry down equipment.
  • Fire zones - provide increased safety of disabled people without the risky vertical evacuation. It also allows for a higher number of individuals to be kept safe for longer. Zones should be planned so that lifts can be used for evacuation. Try to plan the fire zones away from security doors.
  • Use of lifts - the BS9999 suggests risk assessments should be completed to enable the use of standard lifts for evacuation. Power supply routes and a zoned detection system would assist in this.
  • Flashing beacons - are required wherever someone could be in relative isolation, for example in toilets, stores and possibly offices. They are also needed in noisy environments.
  • Double knock systems – can be used where there are pupils with autism, BESD, to prevent false alarms

Third Party Users

Third party usage of schools falls squarely under the DDA. Those operating these services need to ensure that all reasonable measures have been included. This will be reflected not just in the physical premises but also in the management systems and operational policies.

In summary, given increasing expectations and the importance in providing inclusive education, it is essential that all schools review not only polices, practices and procedures, but also their premises on a regular basis. When work is required, care should be taken in the briefing and tendering process. The process should identify the standard expected; there should be clear guidance from the client to the design team on its expectations of the school building’s functions. Inclusion should form an integral part of the design process from the building’s inception to its operational policies.

Jane Simpson is an RIBA Architect and NRAC Access Consultant, with over 15 years experience in inclusion, having worked within both private and public offces. In 2007 she formed her own consultancy, Jane Simpson Access (JSA).

Taken from 21st Century Schools

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