Inclusion by design


02 March 2020

A rise in the number of students with special needs is delivering a new type of learning environment. Governments are briefing architects for new public schools to provide “inclusive environments” to improve learning and behaviour management. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates one in 10 school students in Australia have disability, and almost one in 20 have a severe or profound disability. Many others have additional learning needs. Dr Ben Cleveland, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne, says Armstrong Creek School in Melbourne’s southwest is a flagship school for inclusive learning environments. The school can accommodate up to 30 per cent of students with special needs, says Cleveland, who is also associate director of the Learning Environments Applied Research Network (LEaRN). “It can be altered to be much more responsive to the different needs of student cohorts over time by creating different spaces,” he says. “You can have a lot more connection or a lot more retreat, depending on the time of day or the students using the space. It’s designed to be an equitable and accessible learning environment for all students.”

Creating Connections

New school architecture also takes account of the trend towards more community hubs and partnerships with local organisations. Dr Adam Wood, a research fellow at the Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research in the UK, says it’s a trap to frame the design of schools wholly in terms of learning seen through the lens of NAPLAN, PISA and other standardised measures. “It misses out a great deal of what schools actually do, not least the social and cultural role of schools as places to gain a sense of community and citizenship,” says Wood. He likes to think of a school building as a “dignified workspace” rather than a “glamorous space” that needs careful thought and planning on tight deadlines. “I appreciate everybody in education wants more time. But we forget sometimes that the schools that we’re building and the education that we’re providing are public goods and we need to have public conversations about them. And that includes teachers right from the very beginning,” Wood says.

Community and collaboration

Tulliallan Primary School principal Kathy Sharp declares she would never return to a school with individual classrooms after her experience at her school in Melbourne’s Cranbourne North. Tulliallan, which opened in 2017, was designed as an open-plan school. Three main buildings house different age groups. They all look the same inside and out, but the furniture changes size to reflect the growing students. It is a flexible learning approach that puts students in touch with a number of teachers during the day. “It’s conducive to teacher collaboration and that means there is collaboration among students,” says Sharp. Effectively, each building houses a “learning community” made up of a number of classes. It means that similar tasks must be carried out simultaneously across all classes. “The open spaces mean that there can’t be one class writing and one class doing role play,” says Sharp. While the open plan is a feature, there are some closed-off areas for special activities, including a rehearsal room, and a quiet area for students with special needs. New graduates thrive in the environment, says Sharp. “They’re working alongside experienced teachers. They’re not in a single classroom on their own, sinking or swimming and trying to conduct lesson planning, student management and parent interactions. They can watch and learn as they go. “Apart from the inductions that we give them, the speed of their growth is incredible,” she says. The style of teaching and learning also creates a “real sense of community” among students, says Sharp. Tulliallan has grown from 300 to 1100 students this year.

This article originally appeared in the, Australian Educator, Autumn 2020