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Education | Infrastructure

How do we make all schools inclusive?

12 Oct 2020, by Amy Sarcevic

Australia has been taking strides towards inclusive school design for a number of decades, but with little clarity on what an inclusive design should actually look like.

While the 7 Principles of Universal Design provides a general framework, its clauses are too abstract to offer any real direction to designers. Meanwhile, the evidence base to show the effectiveness of existing universal design features is lacking, says Dr. Benjamin Cleveland of the University of Melbourne.

“Designing more inclusive schools is complicated, mostly because advances in school facility design have not kept pace with inclusive education policies. The ‘what, why, where and when’ of inclusive designs may be cemented, but the ‘how’ remains very unclear,” said Benjamin ahead of the School Building & Maintenance Summit.

“The universal design principles tell us that buildings must be ‘equitable, flexible and have perceptible information’; as well as having ‘tolerance for error, low physical effort, and the size and space for approach and use’.

“This is certainly useful as a general guide, but it doesn’t tell us how to support the complex and varied educational needs of children, living with a myriad of physical and mental health disabilities.

“As an example, we know that children living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may need low-stimulation environments to counter their heightened sensory perception. But we don’t know exactly what a low stimulation environment looks like in practice.

“Is it a space completely void of colour and visual stimuli, or is it a space with colour and visual stimuli that are associated with tranquility, like turquoise hues, or perhaps a fish tank,” he added.

Historically, children living with disability were required to attend a specialised school to receive the tailored educational support they needed.

More recently, a shift has begun towards making all schools inclusive, in line with the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic), the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) and the Disability Standards for Education 2005 (Cth) (the Standards).

In 2016, Australia scheduled up to A$11 billion to be spent on new schools and facility upgrades over ten years, with part of the spend going towards disability provisions.

And in 2017, around 18.8% of students in Australia were provided with adjustments in their school environment, with the majority now attending mainstream public schools.

However, while many inclusive design features have already been rolled out, they have not yet amassed a sufficient body of evidence, to confirm whether or not they are working.

“There has been a growing trend towards ‘retreat areas’ in recent years, premised on the notion that certain students may need to escape the typical classroom environment to restore their concentration levels. This is great, but we don’t yet know whether these retreat areas are actually effective and generate better learning outcomes,” said Benjamin.

When it comes to inclusive design and school infrastructure spending, a ‘hit and hope’ approach is not enough. School budgets in Australia are large, but stretched, with an additional 750 new schools and 650,000 new students to be accommodated over the next decade. This makes every school infrastructure dollar precious.

On top of that, the need for inclusive, evidence-based school designs is growing, leaving more students vulnerable to inequity. According to the AIHW, an estimated 4.5 percent of children aged up to 14 year currently have a profound or severe disability, up from 4 percent in 2015.

Many of these disabilities are neurological and psychological, with a complex myriad of symptoms and, often, a lack of cohesion between researchers in terms of what constitutes best educational practice.

For example, students living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suffer from sensory overload sometimes, and seek stimulation at others. As such, opinions about how their ideal learning environment should look have varied, with some advocating a high stimulation settings and others the polar opposite.

“Scientific understanding of common neurological disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD is growing, but their implications for learning and the built learning environment is not yet fully understood,” said Benjamin.

In a bid to close the gap between inclusive education policies and universal design principles, Benjamin and colleagues at the University of Melbourne are currently pioneering a research project.

“We think it’s time that school planners and designers have some data-driven insight into what works and what doesn’t. With every aspect of a child’s learning environment contributing to their development – and every school infrastructure dollar precious – it is important we get this right. An intuition-led approach won’t cut it,” Benjamin concluded.

Dr. Benjamin Cleveland is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Architecture, Building & Planning and a Co-Director Learning Environments Applied Research Network at the University of Melbourne.

Alongside Dr. Scott Alterator, Research Fellow, LEaRN, he will share his research findings to date, at the School Building & Maintenance Summit, to be held virtually on 28 October 2020.

Joining Benjamin on the virtual stage are representatives from the Department of Education & Children’s Services SA, the ACT Government and Griffith University.

Learn more and register.

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