Enabling Education

A Call for Strategic Education Design Thinking

SchoolThe voice of concern regarding provision for children with additional needs seems to have been somewhat eclipsed in recent months by the debate as to whether all our schools should become academies or not. However there was, not so long ago, significant concern when the coalition Government implemented their model flat pack school design. In part this was because the design fell short of standards that we would expect of inclusive school provision.  Before that there was also concern as to what form additional / special educational provision should take.  None of these concerns have particularly gone away!

Does the Government understand the issues sufficiently in order to improve opportunities for children who, for one reason or another, find education a struggle?

Thinking Strategically

In my professional life I have conducted numerous suitability surveys and access reviews of educational premises, including mainstream and special schools. In many cases I have seen a lack of strategic thinking. Although I am an Architect and now a Consultant Member of the National Register of Access Consultants, for 6 years I was previously employed by social services as a supply Group-worker.  Having worked with adults with learning difficulties I observed the deficit in social education that some adults with and without learning difficulties have acquired as a result of being educated separately when they were children.  We need to think strategically and beyond utilitarian, piecemeal responses to the issues if we are ever to provide all children with appropriate facilities staffed by appropriately qualified teachers.

Mainstream Inclusion v Special Schools

On one hand, some have believed that the policy of educating children with additional educational needs in mainstream schools has failed. Some even hold that including children with additional educational needs (particularly children with autism) in mainstream classrooms can lead to “a form of abuse” through a form of unintended educational neglect.  At the same time, many in the broader disability rights movement have campaigned for greater inclusion in mainstream schools and have accused special schools of failing their students.  It seems obvious that both options have their problems and don’t seem to be providing children with adequate learning facilities.  Some parents are forced to decide which alternative would be better for their child.  Others aren’t even fortunate enough to have a choice, as there may not be enough specialist schools in their area. The National Autistic Society said in 2008 that of the 90,000 autistic children at the time, most had to learn in mainstream schools as there were just 7,500 specialist places.  Yet, historically, special schools have struggled to provide the level of curriculum-based staff and practical resources that mainstream schools are able to provide and have also struggled to prepare students for the mainstream world owing to a lack of social opportunities that “segregated” education has led to.  Conversely the lack of support, resourcing and specialist facilities within mainstream education has made the provision for additional educational needs within mainstream schools that much harder.

Personal Experience of Enabling Education

Over 40 years ago my parents were told by my infant school head teacher that of the two children they had at the school at the time – “one would go far and don’t expect too much of the other one”. The “other one” was me!  However, my parents recognised that there was more to my difficulties and sought out additional help.  Known to one dyslexia pioneer, as “one of the early boys”, I benefited from early diagnosis and an open-minded junior school head teacher who was willing to learn about dyslexia.  I eventually received the support I needed within the mainstream junior school I attended – together with other children, who were also struggling.

Struggling without Adequate Facilities

A few years later, that same junior school that I went to was approached by a local hospital asking whether children with Spina Bifida could be taught at the school rather than at the hospital. The school agreed but were not provided with the appropriate facilities associated with incontinence that some of the children experienced! It took some careful political manoeuvring to obtain local authority support to address this issue!  You would have hoped that with the arrival of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act and the Later Equality Act those things would have improved!  But despite all the best efforts of some, we’re still having the same concerns in more recent times, that we had over a quarter of a century ago, such as “staffs are emptying tracheostomy tubes or changing nappies, often lacking appropriate training.” (Reference: BBC News Item Tuesday, 16 May 2006).

Many have grave concerns with regards the Government’s approach to school design. One perceives that the children that will suffer are the ones with additional needs!  Then we wonder why poor working cultures develop in our institutions that we all know should have been consigned to history.  (Reference: Our children and teachers deserve better: RIBA slams Gove’s flat pack approach to designing future schools; 02 October 2012).

Hubs and Co-location Satellites

Despite the failures cited above, providing adequate facilities doesn’t require a special school separate from mainstream education. There is a much better solution which involves combining the benefits of both types of school in the form of properly thought out co-location.  However, it necessitates maintaining and not diminishing the standards for school design as seems to be currently happening.

The risk is that inclusive provision in mainstream schools will be undertaken as a tokenistic gesture without substance and appropriate provision, leading to parents having to seek out alternatives to mainstream provision. It is however possible to design an approach to additional educational needs, that provides both the specialist facilities of a special school together with strong physical and organisational integration within a mainstream school.   Perhaps the most effective organisational structure consists of a central support hub (containing both senior and mobile staff) to assist satellite bases with their own specialist staff.  These bases then support the mainstream schools to which they are affiliated.  Obviously, the mainstream schools need to be carefully considered for their ease of access, transport links and educational ethos.  Each satellite can be geared to a particular group of pupils offering support for their particular need whether; physical, visual, hearing, neurological, language, emotional, behavioural or social.  The support hub(s) can even be based in one or more of the mainstream schools within the network of support.

The hub and satellite set-up works very well and enables children to venture into the ‘mainstream world’ – offering opportunities for them and other pupils to benefit both socially and educationally. If however, a child needs greater support than the mainstream environment can offer alone then there is no reason for not adjusting the child’s timetable to receive more specialist support in a supportive and specialist satellite base. In addition, mainstream teachers are provided with the necessary specialist support that enables them to attend to the class as a whole without neglecting the child with additional needs.

In essence the strategy is the equivalent of providing a special school within a mainstream school. This is sometimes referred as co-locating.  However, it is important that they are seen as one entity so as not to reinforce differences – even if there is an internal sub-division, linked by a door – for the purposes of providing children (with any social, emotional and/or behavioural difficulties) space in which their needs can be met.

Examples of Co-located Inclusion

Some forward thinking schools have already moved towards this method of teaching. Kingsweston School, Bristol has a satellite base for autistic students with the local Oasis Academy in Shirehampton.  This initiative is part of the mainstream school but provides specialist facilities and staff.  It was envisaged that some student’s will spend a significant amount of their time within the mainstream environment, whereas some children with more severe difficulties will spend most of their time in the specialist satellite base.

Hazel Court School in Eastbourne is a special school for children with severe learning difficulties – 70 per cent of pupils are autistic –on the same site as a mainstream school. The school has the best of both worlds offering specialised staff and facilities such as a hydrotherapy pool, soft play area, access to two dining halls, an assembly hall, sports facilities and a library situated in the mainstream school.  Half the children attend lessons in the mainstream school and children from the mainstream school also help with classes in the specialist unit.

Educational Benefits for Everyone

Experience has shown that children with additional educational needs gain from learning in mainstream environments. Pupils in mainstream settings equally benefit, learning respect and acceptance, and grow up without the “awareness impairment” that many in mainstream society have developed towards others whom they perceive as different from them.  We need to start thinking strategically and begin to addresses the best of both worlds rather to argue between two extremes.

A Call for Real Inclusion

It is reported that about one child out of every five requires extra help in school because of a particular or additional educational need. However, additional/special needs are educational terms which include vastly different challenges from a language difficulty to multiple and profound difficulties.  It would be unreasonable to expect a mainstream school to provide the correct care and support for each child’s need without appropriate support and resources and equally it would be a shame to remove a child completely from the opportunity to interact with children in a mainstream setting and the opportunity to receive the education that mainstream schools can provide.  Surely by now we should recognise that the two worlds can work together.

Let’s stop debating about which form of educational management or provision is better and create environments where the best of both mainstream and special school worlds can exist together. That’s real inclusion!


Steve Maslin RIBA, NRAC Consultant, FSI

Email: stevemaslin.bud@gmail.com


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