External School Environment

This section looks at different elements of the external built environment in schools, and highlights key areas for consideration in relation to accessibility.

Transport Links

Students using public transport, or those who walk or cycle to school should be able to independently use a safe, accessible route. These routes may often be outside the schools grounds. Working with the local authority can help achieve necessary improvements, such as installing appropriate signage, or upgrading pedestrian crossings to include dropped kerbs, audible warnings, and tactile paving.

Arrival and Departure

Circulation areas become very busy at the start and the end of the school day, when students are being dropped off and collected. The design of pedestrian routes and vehicular circulation in set-down and pick-up areas requires careful planning to ensure the health and safety of all users.

Traffic can be a particular hazard for some people, including people with mobility difficulties, those who have difficulty remembering and concentrating, and for those with sensory disabilities who cannot hear or see the vehicles. Guidelines for arrival and departure areas include the following:

  • Designated pedestrian routes should be clearly separated from vehicular circulation
  • Where parents' cars enter the school grounds, vehicular circulation routes should provide for appropriate speed limits and set-down areas designed to avoid congestion, for instance by using a one-way system
  • Appropriate signage to clearly designate entrances, drop off areas, and traffic flow
  • Designated accessible parking bays and drop-off areas should be provided close to the school entrance for students and staff
  • The provision of a dedicated shelter at the accessible parking spaces or designated set-down points to provide shelter from the weather is a desirable feature


Figure 1 School Approach

(photo by Michael Mohan Architects)

Accessible features:

The approach to this school has clearly marked set-down areas for cars.

The location of the entrance is easy to identify on approach, because of the recessed entrance lobby, the change in colour, and the canopy.

What could be improved?

Accessible parking spaces should be available beside the school entrance.

External Circulation Routes

Accessible circulation routes should allow for safe, independent use by all users. Providing a choice of steps or ramp at changes in level will ensure that everyone can use the same route. A wheelchair user is not be able to use steps, but some people with mobility difficulties find it easier to use steps than a ramp, so it is important to provide choice.

Routes should be sufficiently wide to allow each student to travel comfortably alongside their friends, be they a wheelchair user, someone using crutches, or someone with an assistance dog.

Space Allocation

When designing for accessibility in schools, a wide range of other people with spatial requirements will benefit from additional space, including:

  • wheelchair users, who require extra space when passing others or turning
  • people who use mobility aids such as walking frames or crutches
  • people with vision loss using a white cane or assistance dog
  • students with autistic spectrum disorders who may also have sensory difficulties and who may benefit from a spacious and predictably structured school environment
  • students with emotional, behavioural or social difficulties that need extra space around them to feel comfortable
  • parents with buggies and teachers carrying or wheeling bulky equipment

Outdoor Spaces

It is important that all students can access and use the external spaces in a school, so that they can participate in social and recreational activities.

Outdoor space in schools normally comprises a mix of hard surfaced and grassed areas. While grass may be a difficult surface for wheelchair users, access to grassed pitches can be provided using pathways or matting products.

As well as areas for activities such as games and sports, quieter social spaces with seating should also be provided for students to use.

Where playgrounds are provided, equipment should be carefully selected to ensure accessibility for all students, including wheelchair users, students who use crutches and walking frames, and those with hearing loss or vision loss.

Further information on the design of accessible designated parking and circulation routes is available from these publications:

Building for Everyone - A universal design approach (National Disability Authority), http://universaldesign.ie/buildingforeveryone

BS8300:2009 + A1:2010, Design of Buildings and their approaches to meet the needs of disabled people - Code of practice (British Standards Institution) - clause 6

Managing the External Environment

Allocate responsibility for managing external accessibility issues to appropriate staff.

Responsibilities in the external environment include:

  • ensuring that designated accessible parking bays are only used by drivers with a 'blue badge' disabled parking permit
  • ensuring that cars do not obstruct pathways or access routes when dropping off students
  • making sure that locked bicycles do not obstruct pathways or access routes
  • removing fallen leaves, moss, mud, ice and snow to avoid risk of slips and falls
  • maintaining external lighting so that there is adequate light for those entering and leaving the school
  • removing any obstructions to external paths or routes, such as temporary signs, advertising displays, and sports equipment
  • making sure that turning areas at the top of ramps are kept clear for use by wheelchair users

School Entrance

The main school entrance should be easily identifiable from a distance by its design, location, signage and lighting. It should be easy for all students, staff and parents to use. This should be readily achievable in new buildings.

In existing buildings, it is important to ensure that students with disabilities can use the same entrance as other students.

Some key considerations in relation to entrances include:

  • A level threshold, without steps. A ramp can be used to address small changes in level, up to 300mm. Where there is a change in level of 300mm or more at the approach to the entrance, both a ramp and steps should be provided
  • Doors that are wide enough and easily operated. Automatically operated sliding doors provide a high level of accessibility for all users. The accessibility requirements need to be balanced with cost, maintenance issues, and security issues
  • Manual door closers should be avoided where possible. These can cause difficulties for people with mobility disabilities because of the force needed to open the door,
  • Revolving doors should also be avoided. These can be very difficult for wheelchair users and people with mobility difficulties to use
  • Sufficient circulation space around the entrance can minimise congestion at the start and end of the day
  • A good visual link between the internal office, reception and main entrance area, to the main external approach will help staff to identify any students or visitors in need of assistance
  • A level covered area to provide shelter to students being dropped off or collected is also desirable
  • Any access control system that stops unexpected visitors from getting into the building should be clearly visible. It should be reachable by a wheelchair user or a person of smaller stature and usable by people with hearing, speech or vision loss
  • Appropriate signage directs visitors to the entrance or reception area

School Entrance - Good practice examples


Figure 2 School Entrance

Accessible features:

The approach to this school has level pedestrian routes with generous widths which are kept clear of clutter.

The entrance has a large canopy which clearly identifies the position of the entrance on the approach, and provides shelter.

There is level access at the double glazed doors.

What could be improved?

The grey column at the corner of the canopy could be a hazard to someone with vision loss. Changing the colour of the column to provide a visual contrast with the background would improve the accessibility of the entrance, as would providing markings on the glazed screens.

Automatic opening doors would also make the entrance easier to use.


Figure 3 School Entrance

Accessible features:

The entrance to this school is level with automatic opening glazed doors.

The recessed matwell provides additional safety in wet conditions while avoiding the risk of tripping over a floor mat.

What could be improved?

Changing the colour or tone of the door-frame to create a visual contrast with the rest of the glazed screen would make it easier for people with vision loss to identify the position of the door.

Manifestations or markings on the glass to make sure that it stands out for people with vision loss would help reduce the risk of someone walking into the glass.

The following documents give further advice on the design of accessible entrances:

Building for Everyone - A universal design approach (National Disability Authority), http://www.universaldesign.ie/buildingforeveryone

BS8300:2009 + A1:2010, Design of Buildings and their approaches to meet the needs of disabled people - Code of practice (British Standards Institution) - clause 6

Building Bulletin 102, Designing for disabled children and children with special educational needs, guidance for mainstream and special schools (Department for Children, Schools and Families, UK)

Managing the School Entrance

Ensure that the following accessibility issues are regularly reviewed to maintain the accessibility of the entrance area:

Where automatic or power-assisted doors are in place, make sure these are regularly serviced in line with manufacturers' recommendations. Where these doors are not working properly, ensure that they are fixed as soon as possible

Where manual door closers are fitted, make sure these are adjusted to provide the minimum force necessary to open or close the door

Make sure staff and students are aware of the need to offer assistance by holding open doors or carrying materials for people with disabilities who have difficulties at the entrance

Avoid clutter from cleaning equipment, gardening tools, stationery, sports equipment. Make sure that equipment is removed and stored at a safe location