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Building Engagement into the Construction of Special Schools

Building schools for children with special educational and disability needs requires project teams with specialist skills and experience. Paul Hoskins, Managing Director of Diamond Build PLC, explains the key considerations and the importance of tailored engagement programmes.

Diamond Build PLC

The proportion of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) continues to rise, driving demand for places as well as new and improved facilities. Constructing buildings for children with SEND is incredibly rewarding and requires specialist knowledge, skills and experience to ensure successful delivery.

In addition to the logistical challenges of working in occupied sites, there are other considerations which often require main contractors to go above and beyond to minimise the impact of any building work. Being mindful that the school environment is a priority, which often means there is a need for a very flexible approach, especially in terms of noise and physical interaction. Building strong partnerships with school leaders is crucial and this usually involves tailored activities that help to sensitively engage the children in the construction work and subsequent changes to their surroundings.

The recent construction of new facilities at Cricket Green School in the London Borough of Merton highlights the skills required by project teams.

To meet growing demand, 80 additional SEND places were required at the school, which welcomes children with complex and varied needs aged from four to 19. This includes pupils with significant learning, language and communication difficulties and identified autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other diagnosed conditions. It is rated by Ofsted as ‘Outstanding’ and needed extra buildings on site to accommodate the additional places.

Creating an inclusive environment

Architect firm Hamson Barron Smith was responsible for designing the expansion plan. In close consultation with the school’s stakeholders and local council, the team created a new masterplan for the site, which respected the school’s community focus, ethos and values. The children’s special educational needs and disabilities were considered right from the start, placing them at the centre of the design process.

Diamond Build PLC was appointed as the main contractor for the £5.7m project, which included extending two existing buildings to create a new reception, meeting room and play therapy area, as well as a larger school hall and music hub.

A new two-storey building was also constructed featuring nine new classrooms. A key design principle for this facility was a simple, clear layout that could be easily understood by all users and was flexible and adaptable over time. Thermal comfort and acoustic requirements were also carefully considered and designed in line with BB101 and BB93 guidance.

Sustainability and energy efficiency were an integral part of the project, so the new two-storey building is targeted to achieve a BREEAM ‘Very Good’ rating. In addition to a highly-insulated building fabric, solar panels were installed on the roof to further reduce CO2 emissions in line with the London plan to achieve a 35% CO2 reduction, compared to Part L Building Regulations.

The building also features a green roof and has been carefully positioned to maximise natural light and avoid solar gain.

As dismantling, recycling or reusing building components is one of the performance criteria outlined in BREEAM, we sought to do this throughout the construction process. This included recycling timber to create a new allotment shed for the children to store equipment.

A focus on engagement

The construction programme spanned 20 months and the school remained open throughout the works so was delivered in phases. Logistically, this required careful coordination with the school to ensure any disruption was minimised.

We held weekly meetings with teaching staff to ensure they were kept regularly informed of the construction programme, including where we would be working so that areas could be zoned off if necessary. As children with SEND can be more sensitive to sound, noise was another important consideration. It was vital that we made the school aware of any loud construction work so that they could prepare by taking the children off site when necessary or by providing headphones.

Sensitively engaging and involving the children in the building work was also essential to help with the transition to the new building and foster a sense of belonging. At the beginning of the programme, our Project Manager, Michael Celoro – who has more than 15 years’ experience of building schools – sat down with the teaching staff to discuss and agree a programme of carefully-planned and tailored activities. These were focused on helping to include children of all ages in the building journey and enhancing learning experiences as well as life skills.

To help the children view the site’s progress in an engaging way, we created different shaped windows in the fence surrounding the construction area, so they could see the work taking place.

We also held talks in the school assembly about health and safety in construction, which were complemented by a visit from Ivor Goodsite – the Considerate Constructors Scheme’s mascot, who helps children learn more about the construction industry. To reinforce these messages, we organised a competition which challenged children in all age groups to design health and safety signs with the chance to win vouchers.

These activities enabled our site team to build a strong relationship with the school and also get to know some of the students, enabling us to develop additional ideas to help increase engagement. For example, one of the children expressed a particularly keen interest in construction so we appointed him project manager for the school and gave him the opportunity to take regular notes on the project’s progress to keep the other students and teachers informed.

The completion of the build was marked with a special opening ceremony where our team, the school’s staff and children were present to help cut the ribbon and officially open the doors to the new building.

Speaking about the new facilities, Celia Dawson, Headteacher at Cricket Green School, said: “We are so thrilled to be fortunate enough to have our new building, named The Phoenix building, at Cricket Green School. At last, we feel we have a school building that matches our outstanding provision. The building combines a modern design, with function and purpose. It is light, spacious and has a feeling of intent and ambition. Our pupils are now able to learn in a school with added value and which celebrates their potential achievements.”

The success of the engagement programme is also reflected in the feedback received from the school’s governing body that praised Diamond Build for going “the extra mile” and building “a positive and respectful relationship” with the school.

Contact Diamond Build PLC

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