This month, representatives from Shared Agenda attended the Education Estates SEND Conference at the Science Gallery in London, which focused on how school facilities can provide the best experience for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). Nikola Idle, Shared Agenda’s Director of Consultancy, spoke at the event, and reflected on what she learned on the day, and how this sort of small, inclusive event is perfect for delivering solutions to complex challenges.

“This was only the second time the Education Estates SEND Conference has been held, and the first time we had visited, so we weren’t sure what to expect.
The theme of the event was delivering a more inclusive education system, and we thought this was apt as the event itself was inclusive – bringing educationalists, commissioners, estates professionals and policy makers of all levels together to discuss some of the challenges facing the country’s SEND estate, and how these can be solved through collaborative action.

The first event was an update from the Department of Education on the wider context, policy and design. This was extremely useful, showing just how much the sector has changed over time, with the watch word being “more”. More pupils with SEND, more pupils with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs), more appeals or referrals and more central funding than ever before – with the high needs blocks increasing 60% in 5 years. The latter fact, however, was set against an acknowledgement that schools are still finding it a struggle to manage – a symptom of some of the cost pressures that society is facing. The issue of inconsistency between local authority areas was highlighted, specifically that the rate of pupils with EHCPs ranged from 1.5% to 5.8%, and a cautionary note that this was not linked to socio-economic factors. The work the department are undertaking regards gaining a better understanding of the current estate through the Net Capacity Assessment tool was also highlighted, accepting that for specialist provision this needed to be more nuanced than the mainstream version.

The second event focused on SEND in mainstream schools, with James Humphries, an experienced headteacher at an inclusive school, giving some interesting insights into running a school which teaches children with physical disabilities and autism alongside non-SEND pupils. He made the thought-provoking point that although there are guidelines for mainstream schools and SEND schools, there is no template for hybrid schools such as his, which causes challenges for decision makers.

The afternoon saw a panel session focused on cohort changes and the flexibility of space. It went through some of the key lessons for how special schools can ensure their existing and new buildings are flexible enough to meet the changing needs of their pupil cohort every year.

Following this was a fascinating session which took a deep dive into the impact of lighting and its affect on SEND pupils, learning and wellbeing. This was really intriguing, as we know a lot of research has been done into things such as school areas and adjacencies, heating and cooling, and hygiene facilities but lighting has often been overlooked. It can be a relatively inexpensive solution, and one which can easily be adapted to suit cohorts with different needs, and needs that change quickly, so it’s definitely a subject we’re going to explore further. We’ve already been in touch with the researchers, and hope we can help them expand their pilot study through some of the SEND projects we’re involved in.

The event closed with a session on Alternative Provision, which I chaired. We had the chance to hear the experiences of Kathryn Burns, CEO of Beacon Academy Trust, on how the design of her buildings has resulted in beautiful, calming learning environments for students that have helped to shape their educational experience. Kathryn spoke passionately about her desire for the AP free school to be at the heart of the mainstream campus, rather than out of sight, out of mind, which is a good reminder for us all about how inclusive design should start.

Overall, the event was really positive. It helped us share our experiences with others, both those we’ve worked with in the past and people we’ve never met before, and the inclusive audience made it a really joined-up conversation.
I believe the best learning comes from lived experiences, so the opportunity to speak to headteachers and educators who work with SEND pupils every day was invaluable. Often, when we’re delivering bid and funding application support or management for the development of a new SEND facility, our involvement ends when the new school is up and running. We’re really keen to learn from those that use these facilities day in, day out, as there are so many lessons we can learn from this to make sure the design of new facilities or refurbishment of existing schools creates the very best learning experience for pupils.

We’re looking forward to attending the full Education Estates Conference in October, so if you’d like advice and guidance on either SEND or mainstream school provision, we’d love to have a chat – come and find us on the Sewell Group stand near the main stage..”

If you’d like to know more about the SEND services Shared Agenda can provide and some of the SEND projects we’ve taken on in the past, take a look at our SEND page.