All our own work

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Pupils in two new special schools have been involved with their design from the start. Hilary Wilce reports

Brand new special schools are rarities. These days, they are more commonly closed than opened. Even rarer are those where time and money have been found to turn them into truly creative environments, where pupils have been involved in every stage of their development.

But Manor Green primary and Manor Green college in Crawley, opened last Easter, show just what can be achieved. The light, wood-clad buildings with curving corridors and colour-themed decor are about as far as you can get from "the hut in the playground" which is all too often special education's lot. Here, it's the special schools that have the Rolls-Royce facilities while the next door secondary school looks comparatively down-at-heel.

"It's made a huge difference to children's learning and outlooks, and to those of the staff," says Rick Turney, head of the college, which will have 160 children this term. "These children feel privileged. They know they're not second-rate citizens and that someone has invested a significant amount of money in their education."

Parents, who can feel upset when their child has to go to a special school, seem delighted to have their children go here. Because the schools aren't just new; they're different. They have separate heads but share a building, and some facilities. "We're joined at the hip," says David Reid, head of the 103-strong primary. The two school halls, for example, can be openedup to give a giant space for public events.

Under a pioneering scheme run by West Sussex, Vanessa Bell, a local artist, collaborated for four years with the architects Hunter and Partners to integrate children's work into the design. She wanted works that would enhance the school environment and actively contribute to what went on. The architects hoped her involvement would help break down any institutional feeling to the design.

Various artists were brought in to work with the children. Sasha Ward helped them produce drawings that were eventually incorporated into coloured glass roof lights, while Art Works, a company from Hastings that specialises in working with pupils with special needs, helped produce artwork installations in the foyers, signs around the school, and some textured white tiles for the hydrotherapy pool.

Most striking are the etched glass doors to the schools, and etched glass panels inside. The secondary school has a watery theme, with children's abstract water drawings sand-blasted on to the glass. In the primary school, children's stencils and etchings of tree leaves are incorporated into a design unified by tree rings.

Pupils helped make numerous other decisions, voting for new school names, contributing ideas for a logo and uniform and chosing plates for the dining room.

"And my job now is to encourage that process to continue," says Rick Turney, who stresses how valuable it has been for pupils to be involved. "We're now discussing what kind of display to use. Shall we have gallery areas? Shall we have noticeboards? And how shall we frame them? Shall we use wood? Metal? What? It's the pupils feeling that they have been included that makes this so special."

Pupils agree. They love how the light changes colours in their roof light installations, and the way they can spot their drawings on display.

Yet it clearly takes effort to develop this kind of collaboration. The project booklet stresses that there can be "conflicting stresses and expectations" and points out that an artist "needs support to ensure that their voice is heard amidst all the competing interests". When budgets are tight, it can be the artistic extras that come under threat.

But the benefits are obviously worth it. The children have flourished. Mixing pupils with moderate and severe learning difficulties appears to be raising expectations and achievements. They feel proud of themselves and their schools.

"The children should be central to everything," says David Reid, "and that's what we aimed to have happen. And now we've got a school where people come in and say 'Wow!' " Copies of the project booklet available from


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