Optimum Learning Environments for Children with SEN or Disabilities 

Your outlook upon life, your estimate of yourself, your estimate of your value are largely coloured by your environment.
Orison Swett Marden, American Writer, 1850 1924.

Rights of the child with SEN or Disability (SEND)
“All children should have a right to a good education, equal life chances and opportunities for the future. These rights should be no different for a child with a learning disability.” (Jan Tregelles, Chief Executive, Mencap, 14 December 2014).
Mencap’s report on parents’ perceptions of their child’s education indicates that 65% of parents believe their child with SEN receives a poorer quality education compared with peers without SEN. Those children with the highest level of need “have been found to spend the equivalent of one day per week away from the classroom.”
In February 2013, the University of London’s Institute of Education reported that pupils with Statements of SEN were being routinely segregated from their teachers and classmates, equating to more than a quarter of their time in school away from qualified teachers and the classroom.
Whilst the Institute of Education and Mencap focus on the quality of the educational experience, other factors seep into the equation that are less well researched or regarded.
The quality of the learning environment when a child is taken out of the classroom, is often highly variable and can have as much impact on the child’s progress and attainment, self-esteem, confidence, motivation and well-being as the quality of the curriculum or the teaching or support staff. When children are exposed to significant amounts of teaching time in spaces that are poorly equipped or designed for support, their sense of self-worth is diminished as they come to value themselves as less significant than their peers in the classroom.
Features of Poor Learning Environments for Children with SEND
  • An ad hoc response to furniture and fittings, with ill-matched chairs, table and teaching equipment
  • Spaces that are designed for other purposes, such as changing rooms, cloakrooms, music rooms, dining halls, corridors, libraries, computer rooms, offices or staffrooms
  • Spaces adjacent to busy or noisy rooms, such as dining halls, playgrounds or corridors
  • Spaces that become a dumping ground for use by itinerant staff and visiting professionals
  • Spaces that lack a clear identity or visually attractive appearance
  • Spaces that are cluttered with resources or equipment that belongs elsewhere
  • Spaces that are poorly ventilated or heated or have little natural light.
  • Spaces that are used in the absence of anywhere else to go.
The Reflections Nursery & Forest School values highly the quality of the child’s learning environment, enshrined in their Vision. “All children have the right to develop as creative, competent learners in a secure and inspiring space.”
Prioritising the Learning Environment
In considering a school’s strengths and challenges, many school Heads, Inclusion Managers or SENCos, will admit to the pressure they experience in finding suitable teaching spaces for children routinely taught in small groups or on a one to one basis. Yet, despite an overwhelming agreement that this represents a challenge area, too few schools pro-actively determine to change the status quo.
Pressure from Ofsted, from external school improvement teams and other sources, mean that learning environments are often over-looked or seen as an incidental factor in the education of children and young people (CYP) with SEND.
Challenges that schools face in delivering targeted interventions include -
  • Pressure on school space to deliver complex support timetables for different cohorts
  • The suitability of space allocated as regular SEN support teaching areas
  • Time wastage as corridors are explored in search of a ‘quiet place to work’
  • Class teachers’ lack of control over the spaces allocated for out-of-class support
  • The low priority given to resourcing or equipping unofficial teaching spaces
  • The multi-purpose nature of unofficial teaching spaces, which may also be cloakrooms, changing-rooms, corridors, music rooms, libraries, dining halls or spaces outside classrooms
What is an audit of optimum learning environments?
An audit is a means of quantifying against pre-determined criteria, the appropriateness of space used within the school as additional teaching space for withdrawal-based targeted work with CYP. It may be one tool in the tool-kit along the way to improving the quality of teaching and learning for CYP.
The actual audit can be completed fairly quickly. After a brief introduction and preparations, one half day would give a completed audit with outcomes. What actions are taken as a result of the audit may occupy the school, according to its commitment to change, over the next three academic terms.
The Audit Process
Factors to consider when carrying out an audit include -
  1. Identifying all the teaching spaces in use for withdrawal work by all adults in a support role (This may mean careful investigation if not all are known by the Inclusion Manager/SENCo!)
  2. Naming and listing the teaching spaces on the Audit Chart
  3. Using the set criteria on the Optimum Learning Environment Audit Chart or adapting the criteria if other factors are felt to be significant
  4. Determining who will carry out the audit, with an ideal being a combination of Inclusion Manager or SENCo, Class Teacher & Teaching Assistant
  5. Gathering and agreeing the results and presenting findings to the whole school staff

Sample Audit Outcomes
Primary School Setting Optimum Learning Environment Audit – March 2015.

Review based on scale 0 5 0 = very low level 5 = excellent, optimum environment.
Features of learning environment
Area 1 The SENCo’s Room
Area 2 The Dining Hall
Area 3 Year 3 Library
Area 4 Outside Year 3 Class
Area 5 Outside Year 4 Class
Area 6 Year 6 Library
Area 7 Year 5 Library
Area 8 Main Library
(1) Setting suitably adapted to needs of pupils with SEND
2
2
1
1
3
3
3
3
(2) Quiet, distraction-free working area, with good lighting, heating & ventilation
2
1
4
1
1
4
4
2
(3) Visually attractive and inspiring learning environment
2
1
2
1
1
2
2
4
(4) Resources & equipment within easy reach of pupils & adults, white board, flip chart, writing resources etc
4
3
2
0
4
2
2
2
(5) Appropriate furniture and writing space, including chairs and table the right height and size
4
2
2
1
4
4
4
2
(6) Purposeful working space, free from external distractions (for e.g. use of photocopier, toilets, cloakroom, library)
2
0
2
0
2
3
4
2
Total scores for each area Maximum=6x5=30
16/30
9/30
13/30
4/30
15/30
18/30
19/30
15/30
Note that in this audit, the Feature of an Optimum Learning Environment was drawn up in conjunction with the SENCo. Scoring was carried out jointly, discussing and agreeing features in each identified Area.
Audit Outcomes and Further Actions
Auditing for optimum learning environments for CYP with SEND can be a highly transformative process. The results are often unexpected and revelatory. Where the whole staff are involved and support the impetus to change, results can be gained quickly, at relatively low cost but with high impact. It is the commitment to change that requires some hard thinking together with an understanding that learning environments shape young people’s lives, attitudes and beliefs.
Setting a benchmark of quality for optimum learning environments is a constructive way forward. For instance, you may decide that any learning environment that gains a total score of less than half marks should be re-considered as a suitable teaching space for children with SEND.
Some questions to consider in planning further actions –
  1. How and when will the findings be shared, to whom and in what context?
  2. What involvement can children with SEND have in the audit process?
  3. What needs to be done to improve those learning spaces that fall short of your benchmark?
  4. Who will take responsibility for the development of optimum learning environments?
  5. Can you rename the learning areas along a theme, so that they can be timetabled with parity
    alongside classrooms or other rooms?
  6. Is there a budget allocation attached to this project?
  7. What do you plan to achieve within agreed time-bounded periods?
Final Thoughts
In considering whether or not to tackle those long-standing thorny issues of the teaching spaces occupied by children taught away from the classroom, consider also what impact your decision not to act will have on the children and young people in your setting.

All children have a right to a good education.

They have a right to be taught in purposefully designed and inspiring classrooms or teaching spaces too.

Article by Heather Stack, April 2015.