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Alfreton Park SEND School occupies the high ground

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Hugh Pearman

Curl la Tourelle Head’s Alfreton Park School takes advantage of its semi-rural location with flexible learning spaces, room to expand, and the client’s progressive approach to pupils’ special needs

Alfreton is a hilltop Derbyshire market town: not the touristy Peak District kind, but the more workaday sort in an area of former collieries and ironworks. Today – positioned conveniently for trunk roads and the M1 – it has hectares of industrial estates marking where the old industries used to be, but also a proper high street and a scattering of historic buildings. On the west side of town it has an unusual asset: Alfreton Park, the municipalised remnant of an 18th century country estate. Here is Alfreton Park School, in a peacefully semi-rural setting appropriate to its SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) status.

It is the latest in a small campus of public-service buildings of various ages dotted around this part of the park providing human support – a day care centre, a hydrotherapy pool and an assisted-living centre among them. Sport also plays a part, with the new school placed between the local cricket club and a riding stable. Beyond the park, working farmland takes over. And at first glance, approaching up the hill from the south, you might mistake the ground-hugging green buildings of the school for another farmstead. On arrival though, it reveals its difference with a vividly red wing on the north side, signalling the big spaces of the school hall, dining room and kitchens. 

Pupil drop-off at the northern end of the landscaped campus.
Pupil drop-off at the northern end of the landscaped campus. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan

This is an all-through school, its pupils covering the full SEND spectrum, many with wheelchairs and other mobility aids, requiring appropriately accessible space and storage. They range from nursery age up to senior school. Its plan of splayed wings can grow if necessary, and the necessity is already approaching. Designed for 120 students, it already manages to accommodate a third more. Being set in open space rather than in tight urban confines ought to help here: wings can be extended or added, though the sloping site has its challenges. 

Curl La Tourelle Head managing director Wayne Head, experienced in school design both in his own practice and previously at BDP and Penoyre & Prasad, cites two formal inspirations. The first is Frank Lloyd Wright’s intention for his original Taliesin: to be ‘of’ rather than ‘on’ the hill, so it is cut into the gentle slope. The second is the wonderfully simple classroom cross-section of Arne Jacobsen’s Munkegaard School (1957) in Copenhagen with its raised clerestory for daylight, ventilation and loftiness. Not that Head adopts the same sawtooth roof profile as Jacobsen throughout, but he deploys it for the widest (red) wing and at the centre of the plan where you really do need height, the symbolic bouncing heart of the school being the trampoline room. 

Elsewhere the double-pitch, single-storey plan avoids either suspended ceilings or rising right into the roof void. Head teacher Josie O’Donnell says that the physical treatment procedures for some of the students involves a lot of lying in a fixed position, looking upwards. It helps to have something of interest to look at. In the pre-design consultation, the practice responded with a good-looking zig-zag timber-slat ceiling profile – decently lofty but not too high. Visually interesting rough timber planks also form the soffits to the oversailing roof sections, creating canopies for outside learning areas. Skylights are close to the roof ridges in the two classroom wings, and ventilation wind chimneys right on top.

  • Each classroom has sheltered outdoor play space.
    Each classroom has sheltered outdoor play space. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan
  • Coloured zinc cladding is intended to blend with the landscape.
    Coloured zinc cladding is intended to blend with the landscape. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan
  • Play space.
    Play space. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan

Construction is hybrid steel and timber, timber being preferred where possible, with high levels of insulation and a power boost from PV panels. The cladding is a proprietary coloured zinc, nicely detailed with a hint of patterning. 

The green wings consist of a short slightly cranked entrance block housing staff amenities that links to the nursery/primary wing. A hub of central facilities – the trampoline, art, soft play, sensory and medical rooms – anchors the plan: all three wings including the vermilion dining/main hall connect there. The longest wing, for secondary and senior students, is a little more self-contained, with its own social room for the seniors. 

As outdoor learning is particularly worthwhile in this edge-of-countryside setting, the landscaped areas, including play equipment, are as important as the classrooms in the life of the school, with both classroom wings opening up to them beneath their projecting roofs. 

Because this is a SEND school, its facilities go beyond the school norm, dealing with the physical and mental challenges faced by the students and including a social skills base, pupil hygiene room and a lot of big, accessible toilets. Being all on one level helps. But the overall layout, while small for a conventional all-through school, is recognisably school-like by present standards: neither client nor architect wanted anything that might feel more like a health centre. There are spaces for working in small groups as a break from crowded classrooms, and an avoidance of long blind corridors: the classrooms face inwards as much as out, with visibility across the plan a key consideration. 

A hub of central facilities anchors the plan: all three wings connect there

  • The dining room opens into an adjacent hall.
    The dining room opens into an adjacent hall. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan
  • Spaces for creative activity are clustered where the three wings meet.
    Spaces for creative activity are clustered where the three wings meet. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan
  • Internal glazed screens give consistent views from double-loaded corridors to surrounding parkland.
    Internal glazed screens give consistent views from double-loaded corridors to surrounding parkland. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan

Derbyshire County Council has a good recent track record when it comes commissioning new buildings, such as its MacEwen Award-winning community care centre outside Matlock or its MacEwen-commended new library and dementia care home in Belper. In client briefings, says Head, it was clear that it wanted Alfreton Park School to go beyond the Department for Education SEND template when it came to replacing the previous system-built 1960s school nearby (upgrading that was carefully considered and eventually rejected in favour of a newbuild with a projected 70-year life): ‘They wanted an injection of architecture – a light-filled, calm, colourful school’, says Head. That was fine but there was not a princely budget for a specialist building of this kind, and this was a design and build contract. So CLTH adopted the tried-and-tested method (learned at Penoyre & Prasad, says Head) of ring-fencing spending on a handful of key aspects such as the ceilings and projecting roofs, high quality rubber flooring, large-scale rooflights, and sociable built-in benches in the circulation areas inside and out. The practice was retained in the D&B arrangement on the client side, with another practice, Maber, working as delivery architect for the contractor. 

The design has clearly worked. Alfreton Park School has an upbeat, social atmosphere and is (as the student roll attests) very popular. Head O’Donnell commends the collaborative design process, citing a reduction in pupil behaviour incidents and a rise in positive communication, compared to the previous school. ‘Talking to parents,’ she concludes, ‘the pupils are generally happier.

  • Timber slats add visual interest to ceilings.
    Timber slats add visual interest to ceilings. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan
  • Built-in seating makes circulation areas sociable.
    Built-in seating makes circulation areas sociable. Credit: Kilian O’Sullivan

In numbers

Construction cost £13.2m
GIFA 3000m² 
Cost per m² £4,400² 
CO2/m² estimated annual emissions 20.4 kg 


Client Derbyshire CC
Architect Curl La Tourelle Head Architecture
D&B architect Maber
Structural engineer Price & Myers
M&E consultant Method Consulting
QS Faithful & Gould
Landscape architect Wynne-Williams Associates
Main contractor Henry Brothers
Cladding Rheinzinc



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