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Clever design supports East London Independent School pupils

Thomas Keaney, CEO of TCES Group, explains how good building design helps to meet the complex needs of their pupils

Posted by Lucinda Reid | July 05, 2018 | People, policy, politics, money

Integration not separation. That is a fundamental principle which drives our approach to meaningful inclusion of children and young people here at the East London Independent School (ELIS). Our school does not separate or segregate pupils because of their support needs. We are able to successfully integrate pupils with complex needs as well as an autism spectrum conditions (ASC) or with social, emotional or mental health (SEMH) needs.

A large percentage of our pupils have been out of full-time education for an average of 18 months before they come to us and have faced multiple school placement rejections. Many are 'Looked After Children' who are in foster care or children's homes. Our pupils often have previously undiagnosed learning needs, and speech, language and communication needs that underpin their other barriers to learning.

We recently appointed a new headteacher at ELIS. After a few weeks, Sandra Harrison could see the difference that the Group makes on learning for pupils with complex needs, “Anyone who visits ELIS, and any other TCES Group school, will see for themselves the diversity of the learners we support. Every new cohort consists of pupils of all abilities and disabilities, learning alongside each other in a general education setting supported by our skilled team of educators.”

We believe that every pupil should be given the opportunity to thrive and pride ourselves on never permanently excluding any child or young person. We support pupils to learn from each other and have created school communities that are inclusive, thriving, and socially and emotionally healthy.

In our experience, SEMH pupils often struggle with shyness, emotional sensitivity, embarrassment, shame, and impulsivity.  Their ASC peers may bring opposite but equally difficult experiences of social deficits, including mild disinhibition or limits in self-awareness and the inability to deliberate and think on their experiences of self and others.

Good building design can help to reduce pupils’ anxiety and frustration. Our state-of-the-art facility is a specially adapted autism-friendly environment that works well for both typical and atypical students

Our radical approach to inclusion involves twice-weekly whole school pupil meetings. These facilitated Group Process sessions provide a forum for our young people to reflect on their experiences of difference in themselves and others. We engage with experts including psychotherapists, community activists, and research teams to ensure the sessions help to build healthy whole school communities and accelerate social skills development.

Our ASC pupils have developed a greater sensitivity to others and are more receptive to the rhythm of a group dialogue. Similarly, our SEMH pupils have discovered a greater receptivity to others, increased tolerance, and a new understanding of their own sensitivity and ability to listen and be receptive. The sessions instil hope and develop pupils’ understanding of universal human experiences. This leads to a major recommitment to engage in learning and with the school community.

Thanks to a recent extension of our Stratford Marsh site, ELIS is now able to support more pupils than ever before. We have redeveloped an old church building dating back to 1775 into six classrooms for science, ICT and food technology, a double art room, school hall, two sensory rooms, and an excellent outside space.

Our building has been specially designed to meet the complex needs of our pupils. It features adequate personal space – designed on the basis of five square metres per pupil; excellent acoustics, combined with noise attenuation between classrooms to ensure that pupils can hear what is being said in class; well-designed lighting, including indirect light sources and avoiding fluorescent bulbs; blinds to minimise direct sunlight; good ventilation; and non-stimulating colour schemes avoiding reds and oranges. We use robust materials but without signalling an institutional environment.

Good building design can help to reduce pupils’ anxiety and frustration. Our state-of-the-art facility is a specially adapted autism-friendly environment that works well for both typical and atypical students.

Sandra Harrison sees the remarkable impact that the space has on pupils every day as she said, “The low-arousal environment helps to reduce challenging behaviour and increase concentration in the classroom, creating calmer and safer spaces for pupils and staff. The results we witness daily are both moving and surprising. Pupils take part in a positive, caring and empowering school community in which they feel they truly belong. They describe being at our school as ‘like a family’.”

Thomas has 25 years’ experience of educating children and young people with the most complex and wide-ranging special educational needs. Operating as a Social Enterprise, TCES Group runs three independent schools in London and the South East, including East London Independent School, in Stratford Marsh, plus Therapeutic Hubs for its parallel service, Create, for young people with multiple overlapping and complex needs who need more intensive adult and clinical support in a range of non-school settings. 

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