Learning spaces: Inclusive buildings

Butler College is a large school in the northern suburbs of Perth that was constructed with a purpose-built high needs education support facility on campus. Since its foundation year in 2013, it has aimed to create a learning environment where students feel valued, supported and safe.

The physical school buildings and facilities were modelled on another West Australian school, Atwell College, which also has a strong inclusive approach to learning.

When Associate Principal Helen Macri was brought on board in 2012, construction of Butler College was already underway. With college principal at the time Armando Giglia, Macri says they went through everything with a fine-tooth comb and said ‘no we need this', ‘that's not going to work', ‘we need to change this'.

‘The [state education] Department has been very thorough with what they've done and the fact that they also listened to us when we said we need to make a few more changes – they're actually excellent buildings,' Macri tells Teacher.

The vision for the college

She says, of the 1860 adolescents that make up the Butler College student population, 130 have special needs. Their disabilities range from an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) allocation through to a non-verbal wheelchair bound student. There are also roughly 300 students with an imputed disability; that is, students who are behind more than two years academically who qualify for National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding.

Macri adds the school has the same allotment of students that you would have traditionally found in an education support centre or a special school, but with this new build from the Department, all the barriers have been broken down and it is one inclusive school.

Features of the school building

Butler College has a range of facilities on site that ensure that all learners can access what they require to succeed. The exterior of the building is shaded in different colours for vision impaired students to be able to recognise where they are at any given time. There are also different markings on the ground when they walk, so they know when they're in different areas.

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

Learning areas are identified by colour. Image supplied.

For hearing impaired students, there is a loop system and extra speakers throughout the buildings that link straight through to their hearing aids.

‘In every single block there is also a specialised toilet, so a universal toilet for students with disabilities and there's also a changing table. That's allocated depending on the child's disability,' Macri says.

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

Butler College's special needs toilet and change room. Image supplied.

The school is made up of three core buildings – A Block, B Block and C Block ­­– and A Block is a specialised area that caters for students with very high needs. In this specialist block, walkways are wider and you'll find more handrails to support students. The block also houses the school's hydrotherapy pool, which can be used by all students and the wider community.

‘[It's] for hydrotherapy for our students who need it. It's also able to be used by students who have sporting injuries and things like that. We also … run Marine Studies – they do a program where they learn how to scuba dive and they use the pool; so, that's then showing that it's across the school.'

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

Butler College's hydrotherapy pool. Image supplied.

The hydrotherapy pool is also a community resource. The school grants access to the local education support centres, as well as for older people with special needs who use the pool out of hours.

Other features of A Block include self-closing doors, ramp access, a lift, a bus access point which has been widened to cater for wheelchairs, and a sensory room. ‘One of the things that was left off when they built A Block is they didn't have a sensory room so we then built in a sensory room and that's to provide for students with ASD. It's all of the relaxing noise and light and sound that actually makes them feel that they are able to not just de-escalate, but able to feel good about themselves.'

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

The sensory room provides for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Image supplied.

Macri says that students with special needs are involved in every subject area throughout the college, including music, woodwork, metalwork and IT. There's also an outside STEM room used by both specialist and mainstream students.

Preparing students for independent living

Preparing students for life after school is a focus for the college, so when A Block was originally built, the educators thought to include an independent living room where they can begin to teach students the skills they'll need to thrive on their own.

School support for refugee students

The independent living area, which includes height adjustable appliances, allows students to learn how to cook. Image supplied.

These lessons now incorporate travel training, community access, work placements, personal development, and money handling, as well as functional literacy and numeracy – enabling all students to prepare for their future pathways. ‘That's an area where we can teach the students how to actually cook and do their washing, be able to look after themselves when they're actually independent and out of home.'

The school also tries to ensure that every child is given the opportunity to form genuine friendships with their peers. One way is through form (also known as homeroom), where students gather for 10 minutes each day to go through general notices. Macri says all students go to form, regardless of disability, and even if they're in a wheelchair. ‘It makes sure that all of the students are involved and it's helping to break down those barriers as well … it's about making sure the students know how to be within a community. It's really, really important.'

School support for refugee students

Wheelchair friendly outdoor seating. Image supplied.

Teaching for inclusion

When teachers are employed at Butler College, part of the brief that they receive is they must be prepared to work with both mainstream and special needs students.

‘We employed teachers who are trained in ed support and, of course, we employed teachers who are trained in mainstream. And then what we've done is we've actually increased our knowledge across both areas,' Macri shares. ‘So the first couple of years, the teachers in mainstream were involved with teaching some of the kids in education support with disabilities and similarly the teachers in ed support were working with the students in mainstream.'

As things have progressed and the student population has increased, she says this has worked really well because students with disabilities have been supported in both the specialist and mainstream classrooms. ‘[For] the writing of documented plans – obviously, to start with, the ed support teachers had done that really well. We've then worked with the mainstream teachers – they have documented plans for all of their students with a disability allocation and those with an imputed disability. So, we would have probably one of the largest cohorts in a school with documented plans. We've worked really hard on that.'

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

A special needs classroom at Butler College with an adjustable desk. Image supplied.

Impact on the school community

Macri says this inclusive approach has had a positive impact on everyone in the school community. She recalls several instances where parents have spoken about the interactions between mainstream and special needs students out in the community.

‘…There may be a parent of a mainstream child and they will see their child interact with a student with a disability. They're not scared of them, they're not afraid, they're not making fun of them – so it's actually changing that culture…

‘Similarly, with a child with a special need that is out in the community, they are also more comfortable and confident to go up and talk to people that would have been at school with them.'

The new staffroom at Macgregor Primary School

A wheelchair accessible drinking fountain. Image supplied.

While school events like the Year 10 dinner dance may not be traditionally attended by students with a disability, Macri says at Butler College all students get to go. ‘We have a Year 11 river trip, all the students in Year 11 get to go. We have a Year 12 ball, all the students get to go and every year it is a mixture of education support students and mainstream – they all interact together, they all get up and dance together, there's nothing different between them and that's really beautiful.'

Butler College also held its first Year 12 graduation last year, which Macri says was a significant moment for the school community. ‘All of those students with special needs walked across the stage like every other student and received their awards for finishing school and they were all clapped and cheered like every other child.

‘You nearly cry when you think about it, but it does show you that we are being successful. But, I also believe that it's not something where you think, “oh we've done this, now we can stop keeping on improving” because you can't. I think you can't ever drop the ball.'

With a colleague, discuss ways in which you think your school buildings could be modified to better assist students with special needs. Is this something you could share with your school leadership?

Helen Macri says it’s important that all students are prepared for life after school. Think about the ways that your lessons build these skills in students. What is something that works well?