Leader Valley School, Earlston


Completion Date:


Building owner/client:

Scottish Borders Council

Architect or lead designer:

Ray Cherry, Scottish Borders Council Architects' Section

Local Authority Area:

Scottish Borders

Nominating Body:

Scottish Borders Council

Project Description

The pavilion form & deceptively simple plan of Leader Valley school has been specifically deployed to diminish the visual impact of the building on its user group: primary-aged children on the autism spectrum & with complex learning needs. Beneath the mask, however, the design uses natural light & subtle curved forms to create visual & physical direction throughout the school, ensuring that barrier-free access is rigorously applied. The building’s form was also specific to its rural location & a purposeful intent for it to sit within its community context. The success of the building is now being seen as the catalyst for wider redevelopment of the surrounding area & campus.

The school caters for up to twenty-five pupils & twenty-five staff at one time & has become the regional centre for educational excellence for Scottish Borders Council. All of the pupils arrive by car & it was recognised from the outset that the transition between arrival & entrance is a key part of the daily challenge for these youngsters. The extensive roof canopy accommodates this, allowing as much time to be taken as required in a proactive environment. The same theme is used at each of the small classrooms where the canopy provides a doubling of the usable space outdoors, giving greater flexibility to the structured teaching environment. Internally, at the entrance to each classroom the door is recessed within a curved façade that is also identified by a change in floorcovering to assist the children with transition between spaces.

Colours can act as triggers for these children & the colour palette throughout is purposefully muted with three distinct themes, dependent on function: teaching, administration & circulation. Noise, too, can also have a significant effect & influenced the use of solid masonry construction, rather than a framed structure, along with the use of acoustic ceilings & floor finishes. The external materials are a smooth render with a standing seam metal profile roof punctured by a standing seam spine wall on the entrance axis. Perimeter fencing & bespoke planters have been designed to match the feature wall, enforcing the overall sense of place for the school.

The life skills space provides a stimulating hub at the west side of the school & links directly to the enclosed garden. Both spaces, like the rest of the building, offer the children the opportunity to explore & learn in a safe & nurturing environment.

The requirements of the occupants must be the focus of any successful building: Leader Valley School has been designed to be a place of creative safety & nurture for children who have difficulty adjusting to a mainstream education environment. Within one week of opening, one little boy, who had always been constrained by reins, had them removed & was able to transit between spaces, internally & externally, unaided for the first time in his life.

Supporting Statement

The design for Leader Valley School was developed over a period that included extensive consultation with user groups, staff & the wider community. The support of the local community has been fundamental in not only the design development phase, but also in its occupation. The building’s location was chosen partly due to its geographical centrality, but also because Earlston is a small town with a strong community where children with difficulties could be encouraged to learn & to develop “normal” life skills within that community, e.g. shopping & social interaction.

The response from the wider community has been overwhelmingly positive since the building has been opened, but fundamentally, the building has seen dramatic changes in the performance of pupils with positive benefits for all. Within one week of opening, one little boy, who had always been constrained by reins, had them removed & was able to transit between spaces, internally & externally, unaided for the first time in his life.

Discussions with school staff have also identified that the positive environment that has been created has encouraged staff to spend longer at work because they are enjoying the experience & the increased opportunities that they can offer to the pupils.

The Senior Teacher has interviewed some pupils & staff about the building & its impact on their lives as an exercise to support this submission; some of their comments are noted below:

“I looked around the school, I like the garden for playtime, baking in kitchen, art in activity room and outside I like the windows.” (pupil)

This same pupil has also previously commented on the way the sun looks as it filters through the roof lights.

“I like being able to see the beautiful surrounding garden”

“The covered areas outside are very beneficial, it means we can play outside whatever the weather”

“ I like the curves and mix of materials in the building”

“The activity room is ideal”

“The building has a sense of calm about it and this has been of benefit to our pupils who encounter a range of sensory issues”

As an architect I am firmly of the opinion that a building is only successful if it works for its occupants & the local community. The feedback that I have received for this project encourages me that the collaborative approach to its design has been successful & that it is indeed worthy of submission for this award.