A NEW state-of-the-art specialist school has opened its doors today (Monday, September 28), in the heart of Chester.

Abbey School has opened in Abbey Square, in the grounds of Chester Cathedral, following an impressive transformation of the Grade II* listed Georgian building into one which is not only modern and bright, but which takes into account all the needs of pupils there.

The new school and centre of excellence for special educational needs and disability (SEND) will have up to 75 places for children and young people aged four-19, catering for students with with a diagnosis of autism and/or severe learning difficulties, who may display behaviour of concern or behaviour that challenges families and services.

And the Standard was given an exclusive tour of the new building, which has seen every room converted by award-winning lead designers Barron Design Architectural Technologists, in collaboration with Donald Insall Associates as Conservation Architects and in consultation with Chester Cathedral Architect, Tony Barton, and delivered by main contractor Read Construction.

Dr Katy Lee, principal of the new Abbey School, explained the many features which had been designed with the school's students in mind.

A state-of-the-art sustainable MultiRoom Ventilation and Heat Recovery system (MVHR) together with air source heat pumps control the air flow within the school – creating a comfortable environment for teaching and learning.

It also negates the need for windows to be opened, which reduces noise distractions from outside – a useful feature considering the school is located in the city centre.

Each classroom is colour-coded, even to the colour of the doorknobs, with each entrance having a button children can press which will audibly tell them which classroom it is.

All classrooms are named after animals at Chester Zoom with Dr Lee adding the students will get a chance to see their classroom's animal at a zoo trip during the year.

An original Chinese Chippendale staircase and stained glass windows, have been retained and restored, with the staircase also featuring additional safety measures which both preserve the building's character but provide a safe environment for students.

Specialist hygiene rooms have also been installed to provide students with a comfortable environment to learn self-care and preserve their dignity.

And despite the city centre location, where space could be seen to be a premium, the school features two large separate play areas for younger and older pupils, including a jungle gym, a multi-use games area (MUGA), and a gazebo.

Dr Lee explained the new school would benefit parents who currently face long journeys taking their child or children to specialist schools which are traditionally well away from the city.

She said: "When you see special schools they are out in the country. The location here gives us new opportunities to help children prepare for adult life through community-based learning. It's a quiet environment and we're a stone's throw away from the city centre, it's the best of both worlds."

Dr Lee explained that the school has made community-based learning an integral part for the curriculum, so as well as learning traditional reading, writing and maths skills, students and their parents can be better prepared for day-to-day life.

There will be food technology lessons and an outdoor garden to facilitate a horticulture vocation pathway, giving children the opportunity to grow plants and food.

Support will be offered by the school so everyday tasks such as going to the shops or taking the child for a dental appointment or a haircut can be adapted and made easier for all the family.

"We have got a lot of families who are living a closed lifestyle," Dr Lee explained. "If we are working with a family, we make it a part of the child's curriculum to make the child get out and about in the community.

"We will be inviting the families in as much as we can. We can work with mum, dad, brother, sister or carer, whether it's here or as a home visit."

As well as the classrooms, there are group rooms which are designed to be transition learning spaces for the more disengaged pupils, and which children can also request to learn in if they find the classroom environment overwhelming.

Dr Lee added the school will not be at capacity at first, as it takes time for applications to transfer pupils to the school, and the school is within the catchment area of 12 local authorities.

That has meant the new school will easily comply with the current coronavirus guidance in accordance with all schools.

Dr Lee said: "We have had 120 applications for 45 places, we have been absolutely overwhelmed by the demand.

“This is a hugely exciting moment for everyone at Abbey School, and we’re absolutely thrilled to see our vision for the school come to fruition and to be opening our doors to our very first cohort of pupils.

“We look forward to welcoming our students and starting the journey with them to deliver the very best education possible.”

Craig Barron, Director at Barron Design, said: “It’s been a pleasure to work as part of an exceptional project team to transform this amazing Grade II* listed building into a state-of-the-art school, which complements its historic setting within the grounds of Chester Cathedral.

“We have retained the fabric of the building and restored its beautiful historic features, while seamlessly incorporating a number of modern interventions to improve, safety, accessibility, and create the very best user experience possible.

“It’s been a privilege to leverage our team’s deep knowledge and experience designing facilities for people with autism on this development and we’re proud to have designed this exemplar school building, which will enhance the learning journey for children and young people with SEND.”

Chester Cathedral architect, Tony Barton, said: “For this unique and wonderful building to be beautifully repaired and expertly converted by the school is a substantial boost for the City and Chester Cathedral. The investment is a testament of faith in our historic buildings and will bring even more new life into this special place.”

Matthew Nicholas, contracts manager at Read Construction, said: “Read is delighted to have worked on this prestigious scheme with the Abbey School team. From conception to handover, the project has been truly collaborative with a whole team approach ensuring the successful completion. We are delighted to have delivered this modern learning environment for our client.”

The new school will be employing a holistic approach, which targets learning and development through mutual engagement and participation.

It seamlessly integrates academic and social learning with Positive Behaviour Support – a framework for assessing, promoting, and evaluating behaviour change in an ethical and culturally sensitive way.

Core to the school’s approach will be a strategic research partnership with SEND experts at Bangor University and Warwick University – both institutions are globally renowned leaders in the field of SEND educational research and development.

The Abbey School Educational Research Alliance (ERA) will see Abbey School collaborate on a number of initiatives with both universities to develop the very best possible educational outcomes and experiences for children and young people at the school.

The school is investing over £1 million in research, development, evaluation, and training - working closely with the leading universities to introduce innovative approaches which give young people an outstanding educational experience which enables them to thrive.

Other key initiatives being developed by the school include the creation of a new app, which will enable the school to evaluate and ensure the wellbeing of all school users, and help to ensure optimum effectiveness of teaching and high levels of engagement across all year groups.

Unlike any other specialist school in the UK, Abbey School also offers attractive funding solutions to the 12 placing local authorities, which can finance the school fees for all pupils attending the school.

For more information, visit https://www.abbeyschool.com/