Designing for disabled children and SEN

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Designing for disabled children and SENDesigning for disabled children and children with special educational needs means putting these children at the very heart of the design and build process, right from inception. This will help ensure not only access and participation but also inspirational school environments.

A recent publication from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) draws together guidance on designing ‘inclusive’ school environments. It stresses that there is a wide range of special educational need and no one design solution to support these children. So it’s vital that approaches are developed carefully, in close consultation with stakeholders from the word go. Only by talking to teachers, specialists, parents, carers and the children themselves – and incorporating their expertise and experience - can a good quality, detailed brief be developed, which will help turn bricks and mortar into an inspiring, ‘inclusive’ school environment that matches the needs of the communities it serves.

Inclusive design principles

‘Inclusive’ design, with attractive, accessible school buildings, can empower children and young people with SEN and disabilities. Designing for disabled children and children with special educational needs sets out ‘inclusive design principles’ which should underpin every project, together with case studies, illustrated examples, plans and photographs showing how they can be put into practice. Inclusive school design goes beyond a one-size-fits-all model, considering all users and removing barriers that might deny anyone – children, staff or visitors – access to services. The design principles define key characteristics that help to achieve inclusive environments, encompassing:

Access – an accessible environment helps children with SEN and disabilities take part in school activities alongside their peers. It’s about providing, for instance, a simple, clear layout, accessible circulation routes, and ergonomic design details.

Space – more space may be needed – for children using mobility aids, for instance, for more small group and individual work, and to allow for higher adult: pupil ratios. There may also be extra rooms for personal care and therapy, and more storage space for mobility and communication aids and the wide range of teaching resources.

Sensory awareness – the environment can have a significant impact on access. It means thinking carefully about acoustics, visual contrast, levels of stimuli and the use of colour, light, sound, and texture.

Enhancing learning – a well designed environment enhances a child’s educational experience. Good design can help ensure that teachers and children can communicate clearly, that furniture, fittings and equipment support the particular teaching and learning styles, and that specialist resources, personal belongings and mobility equipment are easily accessible.

Flexibility and adaptability – schools must be flexible for  everyday use and adaptable over time to meet fluctuating needs. That can involve rationalising spaces so their functions can change over time, using movable partitions, for instance, so that spaces can be configured differently.

Health and well-being – school life needs to be considered from the child’s perspective.  Thermal comfort, ventilation, accessible personal care, specialist medical and therapy facilities and effective hygiene and infection control can all make a real difference to their health and well-being.

Safety and security – all children should feel safe and secure, supported in their progress to independence. There needs to be zoning to reflect different functions, for example, and security that will prevent unauthorised access and exit.

Sustainability – high quality sustainable design is crucial. It can affect social cohesion, ensure value for money and minimise the environmental impact of a school development.

"Designing for disabled children and children with special educational needs" reflects the whole spectrum of approaches, ranging through inclusive mainstream schools and special units, to special schools and co-located mainstream and special schools. Users can draw together the information relevant to their situation locally, combining elements from different sections of the book. It’s a useful reference for planning new build or refurbishment, and an invaluable guide for improving or re-modelling existing buildings to bring accommodation up to standard.

It can also be used to inform the development of school accessibility plans and disability equality schemes. It’s not meant to be prescriptive but instead to offer a starting point towards inclusive environments for all children with SEN and disabilities.

Designing school spaces

The central part of the publication focuses on designing specific school spaces, looking at what needs to be included for children with SEN and disabilities – both in learning and social spaces and in support spaces such as group rooms, specialist facilities, staff accommodation, toilets and changing areas, catering areas and storage. Key design points are highlighted, along with charts showing area guidelines.

Learning and social spaces are divided by phase of education – early years, primary, secondary and post 16 – looking first at mainstream and then at special school accommodation. The information in these pages can be put together to suit the age range of any school project.

There is detailed technical guidance covering building construction, environmental services, furniture, fittings and equipment and the information and communications technologies (ICT) needed to support children with SEN and disabilities. Example schedules are a useful check for designers, showing how the guidance on individual spaces can be brought together for different sizes and types of school.

Schools are a vital community resource. By 2010 all schools (often working in partnerships or clusters) will be providing access to a range of services - childcare in primary schools, parenting support, swift and easy referral to targeted and specialist services, and wider community access to IT, sports and arts facilities, including adult learning. Designing uplifting school spaces that are fully accessible for disabled children and those with SEN is an essential part of this community focus and fundamental to 21st century schools.

Next steps

To order a copy of Designing for disabled children and children with special educational needs, visit

The DCSF plans to publish more case studies of good practice design on its website at over the coming months

Taken from 21st Century Schools

Learning Spaces