Our brief was ambitious; a purpose-built, modern special school to offer the best facilities possible for 160 pupils from 4 – 19 years old, incorporating special teaching spaces, external environments and therapeutic facilities.

The foundation of the design for Polden Bower is the knowledge that attractive, accessible school environments create a space for its students to thrive. Inclusive SEND school design goes beyond a one-size-fits-all model and the exact complex needs of different children need to be considered to create a versatile space where everybody can prosper.

Therefore, much of our initial engagement with Polden Bower was understanding the essential demands of the children and the spaces we needed to create to transform the lives of the young people who attend this school. Because this building is so much more than a school, it is a community, a haven that offers security and positivity, an opportunity for exploration.

In order to achieve our vision of a place to explore, learn, discover, play and grow we set up an engagement plan with the school, council and key users to hold a series of workshops. Relevant specialists were also invited to the meetings as required. The workshops focussed on specific design elements of the building to ensure everything needed was captured. Establishing positive working relationships with the team from the outset lead to a coordinated and collaborative approach to design.

The resultant building breaks with conformity – it was important that the building did not look institutionalised. Instead, we delivered a school that is warm and inviting with pitched roofs, coloured gables and standing seam cladding that soften the architecture and present a more domestic, friendly appearance.

Building on our knowledge from other recently completed SEND schools we adopted a hub and spoke approach. One of the first steps was arranging the classroom wings on a north-south axis, to prevent south-facing classrooms and improved daylighting from the east and west.

The functionality of a SEND school is key. Ensuring the school building is responsive whilst robust ensures teachers can focus on what is important – educating the students. Every element of the design and build of this specialist school is there with purpose, from the furniture which is specific to the users unique needs to the fixtures and equipment that have all been specified to withstand potential damage along with the ceiling, floor and wall finishes. The design responds to the needs of the users; providing a safe and sheltered arrival entrance, onsite security, sensory stimulus, wellbeing, inclusivity, flexible functionality and longevity of use.

The beauty of Polden Bower is its design seamlessly accommodates all these demands in a vibrant, welcoming and warm building. The school is zoned both internally and externally to create an intelligent access control strategy that safeguards pupils at all times. To aid the children’s navigation around the building and to recognise their progression through key stages we designed a strong colour palette and branding used throughout.

All children, including those with SEN and disabilities, need to feel safe and secure, supported in their progress to independence. Safety, therefore, formed the basis of every design choice at Polden Bower.

Schools need to be flexible for everyday use and adaptable over time to meet the current and future needs of children with SEN and disabilities. Polden Bower’s modern design means its environment can do just this. The versatile environments include transfer hoists so pupils can be moved from any position in the classroom without having to use a wheelchair or frame.

Alternative learning environments offer breadth and diversity to the traditional education pathway. The outdoor teaching and learning were therefore as important to the pupils as the internal classrooms. Many of the pupils at SEND schools will use sports and exercise to develop their education and life skills.

Beautiful spaces with excellent levels of natural light, acoustics and air quality create environments for teachers to further inspire pupils to fulfil their potential. For SEN pupils and those with physical disabilities sensory gardens with a variety of specific planting species and textures were designed. An extensive number of trees have been planted across the site along with a diverse biodiversity planting strategy.

The school boasts a fantastic range of therapy facilities including; rebound therapy room, soft-play room and full immersion sensory studio. But the star of the show is a hydrotherapy pool. A vaulted ceiling space with glulam structure, the pool is heated like a warm bath with black-out blinds and full sensory lighting.

The ultimate success of Polden Bower though is witnessed in the emotive reaction of one of its leading beneficiaries: