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Building scheme is great opportunity for special schools

A room kitted out with a giant lava lamp, coloured spotlights and a vibrating bed sounds like something straight out of the 1970s.

In fact, the equipment forms part of a highly sophisticated sensory room at the Michael Tippett School for children with severe learning difficulties.

All the components are designed to help pupils access the curriculum through light, touch and sound.

The room allows staff to make progress with even the hardest-to-reach pupils, said Nick Greenhalgh, administrator of the school in Lambeth, south London.

"It's a classroom where the only limitation is your imagination," he said.

"Facilities like these raise your expectations about what pupils can do and what staff can do for them."

The school is the first to be opened for pupils with special educational needs under the Building Schools for the Future scheme, launched by the Government in 2003 to rebuild or refurbish all secondary schools by 2020.

At least 100 schools were supposed to have opened by now. But Michael Tippett is only the second completely new build to open in England, following Bristol Brunel Academy last September.

Around 1,000 schools are now involved in the programme. Of these, 150 are special schools.

Jan Stogdon, the head of Michael Tippett School, urges all special schools to grab the opportunity to improve their facilities.

"You've got to be very clear about what you want in your school," she said. "You need to remember what your priorities are and have a definite vision for your pupils."

The sensory room is just one of the school's specially designed features. Down the corridor, a hydrotherapy pool allows for physiotherapy sessions. It has also been used for the occasional pupil pool party, admits Mr Greenhalgh.

Classrooms and changing areas are fitted with hoists to help the most physically disabled pupils.

The wide corridors lead to a kitchen with height-adjustable work surfaces, where pupils can learn basic cookery.

Unusually for a special school, the new building is constructed over two floors, so that pupils who are capable can learn to navigate stairs. The old school had to buy a set of stairs for pupils to practise on.

The striking wooden-clad building, designed to cater for around 80 pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties, brings together students and staff previously split over two cramped sites.

Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, who opened the school officially last week, told The TES he was confident the delays that had blighted the early stages of the Building Schools for the Future scheme were now over.

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