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MMC: Achieving new standards of excellence with SEND schools

31 Jul 2023

Joe West

Senior Project Coordinator

Setting the trend for offsite construction, school buildings are slowly but surely becoming a defining marker of quality in design for modern methods of construction (MMC). Here, our senior project coordinator, Joe West, discusses how SEND schools operate within this model, despite having a very unique set of requirements set by government authorities, school boards and the wider construction supply chain.

Bowman Academy Leicestershire

Offsite evolution

In January 2020, the Department for Education (DfE) announced the launch of the offsite schools’ framework (MMC1), expected to deliver 30 schools per year by 2024, at a projected cost of £3 billion. It represented the next step in the evolution of offsite construction of school buildings, designed to ‘cultivate, innovate and modernise the industry’, and followed previous DfE modular A, B and C frameworks.

Pick Everard proudly participated in the bid that led to the appointment of Bowmer + Kirkland (B+K) to Lot 1 of the framework – a £2bn programme of secondary school projects above 6,000sqm – and has since entered into a collaborative working model with B+K that is helping to deliver the next generation of schools across the country.

Progressing the programme

We have worked across four projects with B+K so far, with some due to complete soon, including:

  • Suffolk Special Free School
  • Halton SEND FS Widnes
  • Bowman Academy Leicestershire
  • North Somerset MMC SEN

These schools cater for pupils with a diverse set of needs, including SEND (Special Education Needs/Disabilities). This presents an entirely unique set of design considerations, which we explore in further detail here.

During our experience with offsite programmes, we have seen the challenges in balancing the needs and desires of key stakeholders with what the construction supply chain needs to bring projects to fruition.

The importance of collaboration

Due to the needs of SEND children, schools are always keen to discuss their specific requirements. However, as architects, we too have our own unique set of design practices, which we are confident in delivering with compliance, and in an economically beneficial way. Finding the sweet spot between these elements is where our role is important.

It is why client engagement meetings (CEMs) are so vital to project success. Here, we take the school through the design process over a six-week period, which culminates in a design-frozen school layout. This will have already taken onboard project feasibility studies from the DfE, as well as early discussions with school bodies to establish a full brief on the school’s requirements and position within the community.

In practice, this was carried out extensively for the new SEMH (Social, Emotional & Mental Health) school, Bowman Academy in Loughborough. Due to open in September 2024, its initial design process involved a series of aforementioned engagement events, including an online webinar and public consultation, held in November 2021. This gave everyone, including stakeholders and the general public, project transparency and an opportunity to engage with the vision for the scheme, which carefully considered the needs of the local community, neighbours and nearby businesses.

The comprehensive design proposals were showcased publicly to an appropriate level of detail to ensure function, format and appearance of the scheme were easily understandable. This was carried out with confidence, given the extensive time spent collaborating and underpinning the MMC systems and details needed to construct and deliver a successful scheme.

Bowman Academy is just one example of the rigorous plans put in place to ensure smooth sailing of SEND programmes under the MMC framework, however project challenges still naturally occur, despite the best intentions of all involved. The very nature of offsite construction, however, means that the design allows for the fabrication of major components to occur in a controlled, regulated environment, facilitating repeatable and quality assured construction techniques.

Since the framework's inception, one of the main challenges has been overcoming those associated with the economy – which has undoubtedly had an impact on the delivery of the SEND schools – particularly now having gone through COVID-19 and subsequent material and supply chain shortages. This inevitably can impact project costs and places construction suppliers and organisations in a difficult position, but we have worked with B+K and its supply chain to overcome these issues at a challenging time for the entire industry. Ensuring transparency is especially crucial now, due to the unpredictable nature of the industry.

Sowing the benefits

For us, working with B+K is an effective collaboration. The DfE framework is also quite a flexible system and even as the DfE refreshes and updates this, the programmes are interchangeable so clients can pick the correct route and philosophy for the job.

The speed of construction is of one of the main perks to using the offsite method. Within this particular programme, the vast majority of internal and external construction components are to be sourced and assembled in a central location before arriving on site, saving time procuring from multiple suppliers. At Bowman, construction will commence in summer 2023 with plans to complete in summer 2024, so these time restrictions call for an efficient construction programme.

In addition, the ability to quality assure each element of the build prior to assembly is a real gamechanger in offsite construction. Workers can be in place on the fabrication line, quality assessing all panels and associated materials before they go out to site, which is a huge advantage especially compared to working onsite conditions. As well as saving time, this is particularly important for the nature of the build of SEND schools, which can have specific design considerations compared to traditional counterparts.

Being able to deliver such important programmes within the education sector is also hugely rewarding, knowing how many children, young people, teachers and staff will benefit from these spaces for the next 30+ years.

Securing the future of SEND schools

Overall, offsite as a particular model of MMC has been successful in helping to deliver this programme with B+K. As well as following the guidelines, it’s essential to show transparency, through high levels of communication. This should filter not only through to the client, but also the whole supply chain, which helps to cultivate and develop strong working relationships, which in turn help to secure the future of education in our country.