Enlightenment at the trailing wall

21st September 2007 at 01:00
When architects set out to design a school for deaf and blind pupils, they donned blindfolds and gained inspiration. Emma Seith reports.

"WHAT CAN you do here that you couldn't do at your old school?" asks teacher Mickie Milne.

"Outside," says 16-year-old Martin Simpson, referring to the fact that each classroom at newly built Hazelwood School has direct access to its own private patch of the outside world. The school, in Glasgow, caters for blind and deaf children, some of whom have severe learning difficulties and mobility problems.

Ms Milne is adorning the senior boys' section with plants and has big plans. "We're going to have a senior boys' oasis," she says. But, for Martin, the highlight of having access to the great outdoors has been the swing bench. "He was totally gobsmacked by it," says Ms Milne.

For Andrew, who is 17 and confined to a wheelchair, the swing bench is no competition for his weekly massage. He has just returned, essential oils wafting in his wake, and clearly feels that if aromatherapy is available on site, anything is possible. He asks for a biscuit. "Where do you think you are?" jokes Ms Milne. "At your granny's?"

But Andrew's granny would have to be in possession of a spectacular home for any confusion to arise.

Hazelwood School was created from a merger between Kelvin School (which specialised in multiple disabilities and visual impairment) and Carnbooth (which specialised in dual sensory impairment). It has taken four years to design and build, costing Glasgow City Council pound;7 million, and is being hailed as the most advanced school of its kind in Europe.

It has a hydrotherapy pool, a gym with floor-level trampoline and soft play equipment, and a house in the grounds where senior pupils can stay several nights a week and learn to become independent.

Gordon Matheson, the council's executive member for education services, says: "For most youngsters, the most appropriate provision will be their local mainstream school, but there are some with more complex needs for whom specialist provision is the best option. In Glasgow it's not either-or, but what's best."

Children start at Hazelwood as young as two and stay until they are 19. Some, when they arrive, cannot walk, feed themselves or go to the toilet alone. So the school's aim is not academic excellence but to teach life skills.

Monica McGeever, the headteacher, says: "When our children leave, they will not go into jobs or go to live in their own flat or house. They will always need support. Adults who are blind and have learning difficulties can lead passive lives. But the more independence they have, the more choices they will be able to make, and the more stimulating their lives will be."

Jane Eyre, depute head, says: "One young man the most cognitively challenged person I've ever met can now eat and go to the toilet by himself. For the rest of his life, his dignity and privacy will be maintained."

Hazelwood, situated on the edge of Bellahouston Park, is S-shaped, snaking its way around the beech and lime trees on the site. The school is built from sustainable materials to make it fit in with its surroundings Siberian larch (Scottish was too expensive), zinc on the roof and slate on some of the walls.

Alan Dunlop, of Glasgow architects Murray Dunlop, says: "The wood is quite yellow, but eventually it will grey and it will become difficult to distinguish where the school stops and the landscape starts."

"The slate has been a hit with the children," says Miss McGeever. "They love the texture and that it heats up on a sunny day."

But the biggest challenge was not making the school fit into its surroundings but making it fit with the needs of the 48 children it serves. "We had to develop a brief for a building that had never been done before," said Mr Dunlop, whose firm also designed the award-winning Radisson Hotel in Glasgow.

Consultation with parents and staff was extensive. There were regular presentations as the design evolved, with the architects spending a couple of hours wearing blindfolds in order to experience being visually impaired.

Their work has paid off. A cafe at the centre of the school forms a social hub, and a single corridor follows the contours of the building. Classrooms come off this thoroughfare in a logical order, starting with the nursery classes and ending with the senior school. This helps the children to map the area mentally, says Ms Eyre.

A trailing wall that runs the length of the corridor allows youngsters to feel their way to class, or to the music, cookery or art rooms. Eventually emblems such as a paintbrush to indicate the art room and Braille will be added to highlight when different rooms have been reached.

The classes face north so that natural light is evenly spread. "Some of the kids can pick up on strong shadow and that can cause visual confusion," says Mr Dunlop.

Sandwiched between classrooms are "focus rooms" where parents or psychologists can observe the children in class without them being aware. Classroom windows are set high in the walls to ensure privacy.

Every classroom has a door that leads into the garden, through which they can reach their own private area and the outdoor play equipment, with swings and a roundabout that can be accessed by wheelchair. But the jewel in the crown for many of the pupils is the hydrotherapy pool. "It's more than just a nice pool," says Miss McGeever. "This is often where youngsters are most relaxed and we get some of our best communication. It is used by the speech and language teacher as well as the physio."

The pool changing rooms are unisex and modelled on those found in a public leisure centre. "We want the skills we teach them to be transferable to the community and to public buildings," she says.

Using the cafe is important so the youngsters get a feel for eating out and queuing and ordering. "Some of our youngsters find queuing difficult," says Miss McGeever. "They aren't used to waiting and don't have the patience. Some don't understand turn-taking, waiting for someone else to be served before you move up the queue. They will encounter these things in the outside world. It's our job to prepare them."

The ultimate challenge for pupils will be a stay at the school's house. This separate building will be used in their final year.

And what about the staff? "You would be pushed to moan about this school," says Ms Milne, who taught at Kelvin for more than a decade. "You would have to pay me a lot of money to get me to complain about coming here to work every day."


* All classes face north so that natural light is evenly spread. The windows are large but set high in the walls to ensure privacy.

* Each classroom leads out to the garden so pupils can gain access to the play equipment as independently as possible.

* There are focus rooms between classrooms for parents or psychologists to observe pupils unobtrusively.

* It is built from sustainable materials zinc, slate and Siberian larch so that it will blend with its surroundings.

* A cafe at the centre forms a social hub. A single corridor has classrooms in ascending age order, making it easier for pupils to get around.

* A house in the grounds lets older pupils experience independent living before they leave.

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