Peter Whitmore 14 July 2020

Tackling our SEND challenge

There is much said about ‘levelling up’ and rebalancing the economic inequalities that exist in our country, but there many families who think about the issue in very different terms.

There is no greater leveller in society than any form of disability. How we provide for children with Special Educational Needs or Disabilities (SEND) is a measure of how compassionate we are as a country and both the public and private sector are grappling with the challenge. Some 15% of the pupil population - around 1.3 million school age students in England - is classed as having a SEND requirement, and this cohort is growing fast.

Since 2015, the number of children and young people granted an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP – a legal document stating a child’s legal entitlement to funding for further support for severe and complex educational needs), has risen by 33% to 320,000.

The aspirational 2014 Children and Families Act aimed to transform the educational experiences of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities in Britain. However, the implementation of the 2014 reforms has not been without its challenges. The biggest is the difficult funding environment. It has meant that local authorities and schools have lacked the ability to make transformative change, which has had a deep impact on provision.

In 2019, the government announced an additional investment of £700m into special needs education to ensure that children and young people are provided with the buildings and facilities that are right for them. Despite the improved investment, councils continue to face immense pressures in providing care and support and educational provision for children and young people with special needs and disabilities.

Against this backdrop, the need for open innovation, knowledge sharing, and a combined commitment to delivering the very best solution possible, is ever-more critical. As a main contractor delivering SEND across the UK, we see it as essential that the built environment industry and the public sector work together to challenge the status quo and transform the design and delivery of SEND campuses going forward.

In order to explore new methods of delivery and collaboration, Morgan Sindall Construction brought together experts, partners, clients, collaborators, and influencers from the public and private sectors to look at the factors that make up a truly outstanding SEND school and examine how the delivery pathway could be enhanced for all stakeholders.

The resulting Building Better Futures report is informed by independent research featuring insights and recommendations from representatives from local authorities in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire; head teachers from leading SEND schools across the region; architects, designers, and consultants with extensive SEND school delivery experience; representatives from national bodies including the National Autistic Society; and parental support groups including Sensational Families.

The report explores models of best practice in SEND school delivery and includes suggestions for shaping future design and delivery of SEND schools, which will better meet the needs of this fast-growing cohort of pupils.

A key research finding is the presence of a looming knowledge gap within the sector around the delivery of SEND schools, with no platforms available for head teachers or those commissioning schools to collaborate share their learnings and experience around the commission of new schools.

New platforms are needed to share knowledge gained through the delivery of SEND schools. Due to cyclical cycles of investment in SEND schools, there is a lack of repeatable experience available to benchmark best practice. This has left headteachers and school leaders without access to valuable peer experience and examples of best practice to emulate, and the sector also lacks a platform where insights and experience can be shared.

Our report calls for the formation of a collaborative knowledge sharing platform, where headteachers and organisations looking to commission new school buildings can share their experiences for others to learn from – creating an effective method of benchmarking, where examples of innovation and best practice can be explored and communicated within the SEND community.

Alongside this, our research revealed a number of key learnings and insights:

End users need to be brought along on the journey: A lack of focus on the importance of conversations between project stakeholders at the initial design and planning stage meant that headteachers often felt isolated and removed from the early stage of the process even though they had opinions and insights which needed to be factored into the design process.

Flexibility is essential: Effective building and classroom design is a crucial element in learning, and schools and delivery teams need to consider a wide range of issues when it comes to creating any SEND classroom or school building.

The design stage should be prioritised: Current SEND school build and design processes mean there is a shortfall in the amount of time dedicated to the design stage at the start of the process. This results in undue pressure being placed on architects, teachers and other parties to make key design decisions during this phase of work.

Understanding the cohort is key: Commissioners and the entire delivery team need to develop a deep understanding of the cohort in order to ensure successful delivery. This will enable an in-depth appreciation of SEND needs in individual areas and the bespoke nature of the specific challenges that each area might face. Both current and future need should be clearly and carefully assessed and a long-term view should be taken, which considers potential future shifts in care requirements and the changing needs of the cohort.

We have a duty to ensure the built environment shapes and improves lives during, but also way beyond, the construction process. This is especially key when it comes to special education needs or disabilities (SEND) school design and delivery; we need to be working creatively and collaboratively to create places where individuals can truly thrive and fulfil their potential. This requires a level of trust that enables the candid conversations which will allow true innovation to take place, and start us on the journey to secure improved outcomes for every young person.

To find out more and download the Building Better Futures report, please click here

Peter Whitmore is managing director at Morgan Sindall Construction East

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