Introduction and Overview
Inclusivity promotes equality. It provides support, tools and resources which allow each and every person to excel in society and reach their full potential. It recognises that no one should be disadvantaged due to circumstances outside of their control.
In 2020, it was found that 15.4% of pupils in schools in England had special education needs (SEN). These needs include autism; ADHD; speech, language and communication; social, emotional and mental health difficulties; and more. Year on year these numbers continue to rise. Design principles can play an important role in generating inclusivity in learning environments. Architects and designers have the ability, creativity and technology to create efficient and inclusive spaces; and when designed properly, these can have the power to produce a sense of security, nurture and provoke curiosity, moulding users’ attitudes, learning, well-being and behaviour.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the attainment gap, fuelled a mental health crisis and had detrimental effects for those diagnosed with SEN. It has prevented physical access to supportive tools, resources and activities. This impact has been experienced by everyone, with or without additional support needs. The idea of ‘catching up’ could be partially achieved through inclusive learning environments: where an individual feels empowered, confident and supported in their learning and well-being. For many, school is considered a safe haven which offers nurture, trust, and resources to learn and cope, that are not always available elsewhere. Research has suggested that classroom design and indoor environmental conditions can improve academic performance by as much as 16% as well as student health and well-being. Ultimately, the environment in which we learn in can influence our academic and developmental outcomes. We need inclusive learning environments now more than ever.
This webinar-series emphasised the importance of getting every learning environment right to address an extensive spectrum of physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs. Three themes became clear throughout: community engagement; acknowledging a spectrum of needs; and considering invisible factors (e.g. air quality).
Three themes around inclusivity stood out throughout this festival.
Community engagement can be made available by welcoming members of the local community and families into schools to use their facilities. Equally, learners could be encouraged to explore local amenities and other places of learning such as parks, places of work and museums. Doing so may build confidence and interest as well as providing an enriched curriculum and education. Awareness of differences in needs and backgrounds can help to reduce stigma around diverse conditions. Introducing exposure early into the academic journey can assist in normalising differences, enhancing inclusivity. Merging a SEN school with a mainstream school can additionally be beneficial as learners can be exposed, and acclimatise, to different people and environments. Alternating between SEN and mainstream schools may be more appropriate for some individuals rather than full-time education in one setting. For instance, a SEN individual could attend some mainstream classes where their academic abilities are stronger and they need less one-on-one support to thrive.
A Spectrum of Needs
Throughout this webinar-series, examples of SEN mostly related to autism. However, design principles can be applied across all environments providing similar benefits and inclusivity. Bold colours can provoke emotions and challenging behaviours; therefore light, pastel tones can be used to help create a calming environment. Some individuals benefit from a degree of control and predictability, which can be assisted through a school’s layout. Corridors are an area which may cause distress; ensuring these spaces are wide with clear directions can assist with wayfinding, flow and therefore, predictability. Equally, in classrooms ensuring that multiple spaces are accessible, whether that is a breakout room or an outdoor setting, can be useful. Ensuring that biophilic design and outdoor spaces are available and accessible can lower physiological responses associated with stress providing a space for play, reflection and independence. Safety can be managed by ensuring passive supervision is in place.
The impact of environmental conditions like air quality or background noise can adversely impact learning and well-being. For instance, higher than normal CO2 levels in classrooms have been shown to interfere with cognitive function. Installing ventilation systems which enhance air quality could help to bridge the attainment gap, as well as addressing climate change. Such systems should ensure that they do not generate excessive white noise, as this can be distressing for some. Similarly, implementing other means of technology, such as computers or lighting, could benefit learning. In the UK, 6% of learners experience hearing and communication difficulties, so addressing acoustics could also offer an invaluable and inclusive learning experience for this group.
Continuing discussions about creating inclusive learning environments for all could be the key to unlocking enhanced mental health and well-being, improved academic performance and a means of helping young people reach their full potential.