Covid-19 and the Design of Special Schools

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Alan JohnsonNoviun Director, Alan Johnson, gives his views on the impact that Covid-19 will have on the designs of future special needs schools.




The Background

As an architect who has been involved in the education sector for over 30 years, I believe the current Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the shortcomings of the schools’ estate, whilst at the same time emphasising the critical importance of the role the school can play during such a period. The race is on to establish a vaccine for the current Covid-19 virus, but there is no guarantee on timescale or whether this is just one of a series of virulent viruses we may be subject to in the future, so now is the time to review how best to protect our schools.

Many mainstream and special needs schools have been forced to close during the Covid-19 pandemic which has caused untold problems for students, staff and parents. What is clearly apparent is the key role schools can play by providing protective environments for the most vulnerable children and continuous education for mainstream pupils. Maintaining schools operational must be a top priority going forward as they also allow parents to keep working, which in turn can help mitigate the economic impact of a pandemic.

Since the blue-sky thinking of the Building Schools for the Future era, a generation of new schools has been subject to economic restrictions resulting in more formulaic and minimum standard buildings under the current Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) Guidelines. Even the drive for public sector buildings to act as design exemplars for the climate change agenda has not had the highest profile in recent times. The pandemic has also potentially put at risk the progress made in establishing schools as the hub of the communities they serve due to new social distancing rules, so the challenge will be to ensure going forward that schools are safe for both children, staff and the wider community usage.

Forest Way SEN

Covid-19 and the Design of Special Schools

There are obviously major challenges across the whole schools’ estate which must be recognised at Government level. One particular area, however, I believe demands specific attention is that of the special needs sector. These schools are occupied by our most vulnerable children who can struggle to cope with any form of change, not least the impact of a major virus. Only recently has funding been accelerated to cope with the increasing demand for SEN places across the country, so it is important that this investment provides the safest, healthiest and most inspirational environments these pupils and staff deserve.

As a practice which has specialised in SEN schools design for over 25 years, Noviun is acutely aware of the issues facing these schools, so it is vital that the lessons of the current pandemic are used to re-evaluate the design priorities for the future SEN schools.  This article therefore focusses on the particular challenges and opportunities within the special needs sector and makes suggestions where the schools can provide a new lead as exemplars for health and well-being in the education sector.

The Challenges

The occupants of SEN schools by their very nature can often be vulnerable to unpredictable viruses, such as Covid-19. They may also struggle with instructions and not be able to comprehend new rules and procedures around such issues as ‘social distancing’. This can present difficult challenges for staff who regularly need close contact with pupils and where even the requirement for PPE may be a further cause of stress for pupils.

Whilst it is recognised that the two most important ways of combatting viruses are vaccination and isolation of people contact, when vaccinations are not readily available, people isolation can only last for so long without greater problems ensuing from economic and social outfalls. The school therefore forms a pivotal role in combatting such circumstances.

The challenge is therefore to make school life as normal as possible, whilst providing the safest, most hygienic and stress-free environments for the pupils and staff. The school buildings have a key role to perform by a combination of flexible space planning and environmental conditions to limit both airborne and other contacts with viruses.

Where possible, outdoor teaching should be encouraged since it can provide specific health benefits for pupils, however for certain SEN pupils, such as those with autism, it can prove more difficult when there are distractions and there is a greater temptation to ‘run’ or ‘escape’.

Covid-19 and the Design of Special Schools

Covid-19 and the Design of Special Schools

The other key challenge for special schools is to not lose the ground that has been gained in recent years in making them more ‘acceptable’ as a community asset, as opposed to the previous generation of segregated schools or ‘institutions’. With the current concerns about mixing the general public with the school population as part of social distancing rules, there is the possibility going forward that SEN schools could become more isolated again from the communities they serve. Architects can therefore play a key role in demonstrating how SEN school designs can  provide the correct levels of separation for students and the community to safely use.

The Opportunities

The current SEN school brief does provide the basis for adapting to suit the challenges of the current or future pandemics. Flexibility is usually an inherent requirement in SEN schools’ designs, primarily to cater for changing cohorts of disabilities, so the school facilities are usually more able to respond to changing circumstances.

With spatial separation the current principal challenge in mainstream schools, SEN schools have the advantage of more space and reduced class occupancies of often 6 to 8 pupils, however the teacher/assistant ratios are higher. SEN pupils also typically arrive by private transport and stay in their class bases more than mainstream pupils, therefore, they can limit contact with other pupils during the school day.

Covid-19 and the Design of Special Schools

Covid-19 and the Design of Special Schools

The typical SEN school includes hygiene facilities and withdrawal/isolation spaces as standard which could be further developed specifically for virus control. The circulation strategy is also usually determined on making wayfinding easy for the students and again, this should be able to be adapted to a one-way system, if required to minimise pupil contact.

The grounds of most special needs schools also form a key component of the learning and social development process, providing calming through contact with nature and sensory landscapes. These grounds can often be adapted to form external teaching spaces for those pupils that can handle outdoor conditions. This can take the pressure off internal teaching spaces when classroom numbers require to be limited.

The Future SEN School

A New Exemplar:

Following the review of the challenges and opportunities which apply to future SEN schools, it also has to be recognised that the financial climate going forward is unlikely to provide scope for building extra school space. Therefore, the challenge for architects will be to create a new exemplar model within the existing financial and floor area allowances.

We have seen UK Government initiatives in the past to create new school exemplars, including the academy programme providing in many cases state of the art teaching and learning facilities and the sustainability exemplar schools.

Wouldn’t it therefore, make sense to have a UK exemplar school model, designed around SEN provision, which can demonstrate the health and well-being benefits of an environmentally engineered design, particularly in pandemic times?

The USA ‘Green Schools’ movement has, for example, adopted a basic three stage measurement for the programme, being reduced environmental impact, increased health and well-being and increased environmental and sustainability literacy for all pupils. The same criteria could be used for a UK exemplar

The two key areas which I believe need to be addressed are firstly, the strategic planning of sites and buildings to ensure that school designs can be flexible enough to accommodate changing educational requirements and disability cohorts, as well as producing indoor environments which will support the health and well-being of occupants, even under extreme pandemic situations. Secondly, we need to ensure the internal environments are the healthiest and safest possible.

Strategic Planning:

The initial site planning stage should ensure that the buildings and grounds occupy the best aspect and orientation, so as to maximise the opportunity for indoor and outdoor teaching and help dispersal of pupils when required. The success of this exercise should provide the benefit of passive solar gain, good quality daylighting and natural ventilation that can be enhanced from prevailing winds.

The typical SEN school brief recognises the importance of the external grounds as a means of calming, stimulating the senses and providing exercise for pupils who may need to burn-off energy. In addition, the mental health and well-being benefits of the pupils being in touch with nature are widely accepted, such recent examples being the Scandinavian Forest Schools programme and more historically, the UK’s open air schools movement during the early 1900’s which were designed to combat the spread of tuberculosis that was prevalent before the second world war. The principles then were that good hygiene and exposure to fresh air were key to the health and well-being of pupils, including boosting their immune systems, which are still as relevant today.

Oakgrove Outdoor Area

Covid-19 and the Design of Special Schools

The site grounds should, therefore, take on a key role in establishing additional teaching facilities as well as play, even though it is not always easy in an SEN setting where pupils may have temperature sensitivities and may not be able to handle the distractions outside the internal classroom.

The key, therefore, is that there needs to be an integrated approach to the design of the school grounds and the building model type. Noviun has over the years developed a series of successful SEN building models to cater specifically for different levels of pupil disabilities. These models allow the degree of student contact to be varied depending on their individual requirements, such as autistic pupils. They therefore form an ideal base from which ‘student bubbles’ can be established in virus conditions, to create mini ‘schools within schools’, supported by the standard brief provision of regular hygiene facilities and withdrawal/isolation rooms. All other aspects of the school design, including finishes, fixtures and fittings, should also be at the same level as found in health facilities to provide the best hygienic environment possible.

In addition, the typical SEN school circulation strategy, which is designed for ease of wayfinding for pupils, should be easily convertible to a one-way system when the demand is to limit contacts during the school day.

It is evident, therefore, that the basic SEN accommodation brief and building model layout types could be developed to produce a more flexible set of accommodation, incorporating internal and external teaching, and which can operate under normal and virus conditions.

Environmental Engineering:

In conjunction with the optimum site planning and building model, the importance of environmental engineering to provide the healthiest internal environments for special needs pupils cannot be overstated. There is a robust body of scientific evidence which indicates that the health of children and adults can be affected by indoor air quality. Increased ventilation rates have been shown to speed the dilution and removal of viral material. The use of displacement ventilation and the reduction of the percentage of recirculated air within supply air has the potential to reduce building occupants’ exposure to airborne viruses.

Noviun carried out a university research programme several years ago into natural ventilation air flows, different aspect daylighting, heating mediums and acoustic treatments for The Avenue SEN School, Reading. This was primarily because of the nature of the pupils who had profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) were very sensitive to temperature changes and also vulnerable to infections and viruses. The results informed the design process from the outset with the building section taking on a ‘wave form’ which followed air movement paths and at the same time provided diffused natural light.

Covid-19 and the Design of Special Schools

Covid-19 and the Design of Special Schools

The applied research included the provision of radiant rather than convection heating to reduce the spread of pollutants and viruses. Whilst not the most-cost effective building form in terms of today’s more standardised buildings, the prototype completed building has been a great success and the healthy environments created are still particularly relevant today.

The other major challenge in terms of the internal school environment is obviously that of climate change, where rising summer temperatures are pushing schools close to the threshold where many naturally ventilated schools could have to close for periods of time, even without a pandemic. The Avenue School project incorporated a series of sustainability initiatives, including a thermal mass structure and ground source heating, which can be reversed to provide summer cooling, a requirement which will become even more important to offset temperature peaks in the future.

If therefore, we are going to have to contend with virulent airborne viruses in the future, we need to have more detailed analysis into air movements throughout schools associated with both ventilation and heating strategies. This will involve more building modelling from the outset of the design, with an emphasis on achieving the optimum building section which promotes good airflow as well as good daylight penetration.


In summary therefore, I believe the current Covid-19 era should provide the impetus to develop a new exemplar SEN school design which demonstrates how a school environment can provide  safe and healthy space for our most vulnerable students, even in the time of a pandemic.

To achieve this initiative, there could be the added benefit that the future SEN school could improve its status as a community resource within a neighbourhood, whereas in many situations they have struggled to shake off the stigma of the past, where they were seen only as institutions which should be segregated from the community.

Ultimately, fundamental change will only happen if there is drive from Government level to set new standards for all schools to help keep them operational during pandemics and address the ongoing problems of climate change. Architects can, however, take up the challenge within the framework of the current rules and financial limitations to show their own leadership in this important social cause.

Andy is one of our Managing Directors and is responsible for all aspects relating to developing the practice digital strategy.

Andy is heavily involved in the Information Management delivery within the office and is responsible for overseeing and coordinating the management of information processes within a BIM environment on all projects across the practice.