Retrofitting SEND Schools

27 February 2023

The perfect storm has well and truly brewed in the world of Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) schools. It is widely accepted that they are over-subscribed, over-populated and under-funded – and the need for additional places is rising every year(1). This has resulted in extreme challenges for the Trusts, their teaching staff, carers and parents, and of course the children and young people themselves.

The process to ‘academise’ schools began in the early 2000s. Our client, The Education Impact Academy Trust (EIAT) is an example of a Multi Academy Trust which started out as one school in 2012. The Trust now has three schools, one college,  two nursery provisions and over 1000 students under its care in the region north of Birmingham. Our Midlands team at Ridge has been working with EIAT since 2015, supporting their aim of increasing quality SEND places, by extending, refurbishing and expanding their diverse and challenging estate.

We have delivered a wide spectrum of services for each project from beginning to end. Before work can start, we carry out feasibility and technical due diligence to appraise options and risk-assess the site opportunity. Supporting the critical applications for funding and planning consent, we assist in the development of the cost plan, business case and scheme proposals. The next stage involves a full design specification and we assist our clients in procuring the works. During construction, our multidiscipline specialists quality-manage the delivery of the work with the chosen contractors through to completion and handover.

The actual services we deliver in these special projects are just a small piece of the jigsaw. This work requires a deep level of understanding of the political arena and funding, as well as the limitations of the legacy buildings. But above all, these facilities require an empathy and understanding of the students’, community, and staff’s needs that run much deeper than any mainstream school.

Having completed a number of intense projects in live SEND school environments, we’re able to share some of the ways we have overcome the complexities that any professional team will encounter.

1. Limited Budgets and Staff Shortages
The challenges brought about by the shortfall in SEND places brings the need to create more into sharp focus. A new-build, 120-pupil school would undoubtably provide an optimum layout and top-notch facilities. However, it would also come with a price tag exceeding £20m, compounded further by a formidable mission to recruit and establish a quality staffing team and experienced leadership – in a market notable by its staff shortages.

Many existing SEND schools and Trusts – like the EIAT – have personnel already in place with a proven Ofsted record and experience of delivering outstanding care to SEND students. Working with a team like ours in the Midlands who specialise in retrofit programmes, often in collaboration with Local Authorities, is a cost-effective way to focus on existing SEND school estates. This approach delivers improvements to the existing facilities and provides more places for a third of the capital investment and time to market than it takes to construct a new school.

2. Legacy Buildings
Many buildings occupied for SEND education were constructed in the 1960s, meaning they are challenging to retrofit. They were built to non-conventional standards and commonly incorporate asbestos, outdated electrical and heating supply, deteriorating fabric, poor insulation and non-compliant fire and safety facilities.

The layout of legacy schools does not provide essential co-location and links between the students’ specialist facilities and teaching rooms or common areas. They also lack secure access controls which are critical for student and staff wellbeing. Space for the storage of mobility equipment and assisted bathrooms in Profound and Multiple Learning Disability (PMLD) schools, or calm rooms for behaviourally challenged students in Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) and autism schools is critically absent from legacy buildings.

3. Complex End-User Needs
On a SEND school project, the specialist needs of the end-users must be fully understood, prioritised above everything and communicated effectively across the whole team.

Schools catering for students with PMLD have bespoke requirements. Almost all these students have mobility aids, they require bathroom and feeding assistance and varying levels of medical and physiotherapy support, which is often met through onsite NHS hubs. Schools need to provide the specialised environment that allows students with SEMH and autism to thrive. The environment needs to provide opportunities for regulation and also meet the varying sensory needs of every student.

Through a combination of experience with legacy buildings, SEND schools and the NHS, and early collaborative design involvement with teachers and curriculum leaders, a team such as ours is able to significantly raise the standards of existing facilities while delivering efficient place expansion for our clients.

We have worked with the EIAT in schools which cater for PMLD and SEMH students and are proud to provide practical solutions whilst ensuring everyone’s fundamental need for dignity is maintained. Our designs deliver calm, safe spaces with appropriate lighting, and robust fixtures with a focus on harm prevention. We improve access and circulation on and around the site and provide appropriate storage and enhanced security to comply with safeguarding requirements. The inclusion in schemes of fully accessible all-weather outdoor areas have uplifted students’ wellbeing and our attention to detail in relation to fittings and furniture pays great respect to everyone’s needs. In our recognition of the importance of including the wider community, we ensure the schools have soft common areas where parents and carers can connect and mentor each other.

4. Challenging Retrofit Operations 
Project managing the retrofit of a SEND school requires in-depth planning, an understanding of the complex day-to-day operation of live sites, and a strategy to minimise the impact on students and staff.

There can be no interruption to the normal operation of the school, and this requires careful and experienced planning. Drop-off and pick-up times involve many minibuses, ambulances and private vehicles with intense activity often extending up to two hours at the start and end of each day. This has obvious implications for the project in terms of receiving deliveries and site access. The impact of the inevitable change and noise that the works generate need to be minimised to protect sensitive students. All temporary spaces created whilst works are in progress must prioritise the mental and physical health and safety of the student and staff body.

Taking Pride in the Future
Property professionals will be increasingly called upon to meet the needs of thousands of additional SEND school places. This gives our profession a privileged opportunity to relieve the pressure felt by staff and to add value and maintain dignity for the SEND parents, carers and students. To do this, we must understand the specific needs of the students and join our clients on a journey that requires clear two-way communication and a willingness to learn.

Our involvement with the EIAT has resulted in Ridge being an accepted and credible ‘nominated Multi Academy Trust consultant’ by local authorities and the Department of Education. Whilst this gives us a sense of pride, above all the greatest merit lies in the contribution we can make to people’s lives through these vital schools. We look forward to playing an instrumental role in many more.

For more information about the work Ridge carries out in this sector please contact Terry Williams on 0121 713 8000 or email


1 Local Government Association: ‘Have we reached a tipping point’? Trends in spending for children and
young people with SEND in England.