Across the UK, there is a statutory requirement that children with special educational needs are educated in ordinary schools wherever possible. In recognition of this, the current building standard relating to acoustic control in schools (BB93: Acoustic Design of Schools) sets out clear criteria to ensure school buildings are inclusive environments that allow for the integration of pupils with special hearing and other communication needs and mainstream students. With recent surveys of school populations showing that 85% of pupils with a permanent hearing impairment are educated in mainstream schools¹, it is vital that appropriate consideration is given to the acoustic environment of schools from the earliest stages of the design process.
Enhanced learning through acoustic control
The link between ineffective noise control and poor academic performance is a key consideration when building schools for two reasons. Firstly, careful consideration should be given at the design stages as to whether the correct building products to control external noise pollution and safeguard the health and wellbeing of the school’s community and local residents have been used. For example, a gymnasium housing a loud basketball game with cheering crowds should not be heard in nearby classrooms where lessons are taking place. Beyond the obvious distraction to students, proven hormonal responses to loud, unpredictable sounds suggests that students exposed to chronic loud noises over time are at risk of damage to their general health and mental wellbeing², not to mention academic performance³.
Secondly, consideration should be given as to whether the correct building products have been specified to instil adequate reverberation time control within each particular room or space. Without appropriate acoustic control measures in place, large unfurnished areas like sports halls or assembly halls will have extremely long reverberation times; in layman’s terms this means that the room will have a lot of echo and it will be difficult to hear and understand speech or music within that space which is not at all ideal for students in a learning environment.
Creating inclusive spaces
Unwanted noise not only has a detrimental effect on mainstream pupils in an education setting4, but it can also prove especially problematic for pupils with special hearing requirements; leading to decreased speech recognition and understanding and potentially decreased academic performance if left unchecked. Poor acoustics have also been proven to leave pupils with special hearing requirements over-exerted due to the extra effort required to distinguish speech. In this way a poor acoustic environment can be a severe barrier to inclusion, leaving children with special hearing requirements feeling isolated and struggling to keep up with everyday demands.
While schools that meet BB93 effectively will not necessarily be suitable for all special needs pupils, it can generally be assumed that pupils with special hearing and other communication needs should be taught in rooms that meet this criterion. While there is a range of technological devices available to assist pupils on an individual basis, strong consideration also has to be given to whether appropriate building products are/have been used to ensure the building is adequately insulated against noise inside and out. Acoustic control between rooms should be sufficient to prevent sound travelling from one area to another – especially noise-producing rooms that house activities . For example, sound from plant and equipment in an IT suite should be controlled adequately to ensure that reverberation to other spaces is kept to a minimum.
A ‘whole school’ approach when it comes to design
Pupils with special hearing requirements should be included in all school activities according to the Equality Act 2010. That’s why it’s crucial that the focus is not only given to classrooms, but to all areas where hearing-impaired pupils go about their day-to-day activities. While often overlooked in school design, outside-classroom learning is critical to overall learning and development. As such, attention should be given at the design stages to all areas of the school; from libraries to assembly halls, sports halls, gymnasia, music rooms and even ICT suites.
An effective way to maintain low noise levels throughout a school is careful planning at the design stages and the use of products that have been specifically designed to minimise reverberation times.