During the pandemic, many parents have been grappling with home schooling. Perhaps now is the time to look forward and reflect on better acoustic design for classrooms – in particular spaces well suited for pupils with special needs.
According to published lists, over 5% of school children are classified with special hearing and communication needs. This includes not just children with permanent hearing impairment but also those on the autistic spectrum, with ADHD, and with speech and language difficulties. These students need lower noise levels and better room acoustics than those required for mainstream classrooms.
Back in 2003, the Department for Education published Building Bulletin 93 Acoustic Design of Schools, setting out enhanced acoustic standards for children with these special needs. In 2015, the DfE issued further guidance stating that pupils with special needs should be taught in classrooms which meet these enhanced standards, and that they should be taught in smaller groups so that ambient noise from other pupils is lower and the distance between teacher and pupil is minimised.”
Sadly many pupils with these special needs are still taught in classes of up to 30 children, and in classrooms which barely even meet the basic standard – let alone any enhanced requirements. Unsurprisingly, the reason behind this often comes down to cost, although in some cases ignorance of the regulations and guidance is also a factor.
There are incentives to schools and education authorities, resulting in a carrot and stick approach. The carrot is the knowledge that improving classroom acoustics allows pupils to understand better. This leads to better academic results and better health for children and teachers alike.
The stick is the dreaded SEND Tribunal – a legal procedure which often finds that the proposed state provision for the pupil is inadequate because they would be taught in large classes or in classrooms which would not meet the DfE’s enhanced acoustic requirements. It comes as a shock to many education authorities that providing some teaching in a special hearing-impaired unit is not enough, if the rest of the time is spent in large mainstream classrooms where the pupil struggles to understand what is being said.
A tribunal, therefore, frequently leads to the child being offered a place at a special school or at an independent school with small class sizes and good classroom acoustics . Whilst this may be a good outcome for child and parents, it comes at huge expense to the local education authority.
What are the solutions to better acoustic design?
By appointing an experienced acoustic consultant with experience of design to the DfE’s enhanced acoustic standards for special needs. An acoustician appointed at the outline design stage can offer money-saving advice on room sizes, locations and layouts to minimise the amount of acoustic treatment needed.
How can a school avoid common pitfalls?
- Don’t rely on ventilation through open windows near to a busy road
- Keep room volumes low – rooms with high ceilings need more acoustic absorption
- Use acoustic absorption overhead by investing in “Class A” acoustic ceilings and wall panels, rather than in the minimum “Class C” products required under BB93. Despite a higher initial price, their added efficiency will result in lower costs overall while providing better acoustics.
- When thinking about wall panels, don’t fall into the trap of assuming noticeboards and pinboards are acoustically absorbent – most of them are not.
- BB93 allows us to include the effect of furniture and fittings in our acoustic calculations and measurements. Use these to reduce the amount of acoustic treatment required.
- Conventional reverberation time calculations are not accurate in most classrooms, so use a consultant who will create 3D models for the most reliable results and to identify the most cost-efficient types and locations of acoustic treatment.
By employing a specialist acoustic consultant with the right experience, the professional fees charged can easily be outweighed by permanent benefits. A well-designed classroom can prevent problems and save money in the long term.
When the current pandemic is over, we hope that those with SEND will see further improvements in the acoustics of their classrooms. After all, we all hope that the post-pandemic world will offer a better learning environment.
- Editor’s note: This article is in part related to the Spaces for Learning publication (Spring 2021) available here.