Schools should be redesigned to absorb disruptive sound, as studies show just how harmful excess noise can be, reports Etan Smallman
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Walk into the average school and you will find that we have moved very far from the Victorian adage of children being “seen and not heard”.
The World Health Organisation says noise in classrooms should not exceed 35 decibels (dB). But one study of UK primary schools found the average to be 65dB (a tumble dryer is 70dB).
In addition to an energetic class inside, there can be hustle and bustle from corridors and playgrounds, as well as outside noise from cars, planes and rain and vibrations from plumbing and ventilation systems.
Researchers have found high sound levels can have a detrimental effect on pupils’ memory, motivation and reading ability. A study of 142 schools in England found there is a direct correlation between the level of noise outside the classroom – mainly from traffic – and pupils’ Key Stage 2 maths results, between the ages of seven and 11.
Children with hearing impairments suffer most, because hearing aids and cochlear implants cannot cut out background sounds. But the problem also disproportionately affects those with hay fever and ear infections, pupils for whom English is a second language and introverts, who work better in quieter environments.
It can also lead to voice strain for staff. Teachers are 32 times more likely to experience vocal problems than other those in professions, with women particularly at risk. And those experiencing sound levels above 65dB are even likely to be at increased risk of heart attacks, according to researchers in Germany. Rahat Khan, a secondary school teacher in northwest London, says: “Noise in the classroom distracts teachers from actually teaching, forcing them into managing behaviour instead.
“When the teacher gets back to the subject at hand, students may lose track of what was being taught, which can have a detrimental effect on the quantity and quality of learning.”
Ben Hancock, managing director of Oscar Acoustics, a company that offers architectural solutions to noise reverberation, says: “We worked with a school recently that held four separate classes in a single room, and the noise could reach levels of up to 90dB.” That is the equivalent of a pneumatic drill.
“If this kind of situation is unavoidable, try to use partitions such as high bookcases and cupboards or invest in some form of acoustic treatment to the ceiling.”
Rooms filled with only hard furniture and bare walls and floors should be eschewed, he explains, as noise reverberates against solid surfaces.
Instead, opt for noticeboards, wall hangings, curtains, carpets and cushions to absorb excess noise.
Cavernous Victorian school buildings were clearly not designed to suit modern teaching methods, but even state-of-theart academies are problematic.
They are often constructed with lightweight materials, which offer poor sound insulation, and a profusion of glass, which is excellent at reflecting, rather than absorbing, background noise.
They also frequently boast open-plan designs that make it almost impossible to minimise sound intrusion from other areas of the building.
“Let’s stop this madness of open-plan classrooms right now, please,” says sound and communication expert Julian Treasure in his hit Ted talk: “Why architects need to use their ears”.
In several cases, state – of-the-art new schools that ended up in special measures have turned their backs on wall-free architecture.
In 2015, five years after opening its £38m building, the openplan Bexhill High Academy, in East Sussex, was given £6m for a redesign of its open-walled “education pods”.
St Aldhelm’s Academy, in Dorset, promised the perfect space for “21st century modern teaching” when it opened in 2012 after a £9.8m redevelopment. But in less than two years, it was in special measures and its new trust started putting the walls back in, admitting that “vast open-plan classrooms made it impossible for students to concentrate”.
After the changes, St Aldhelm’s was rated “good” by Ofsted, which said it had become “calm and harmonious”. The magazine Schools Week dubbed it “the school that got better with walls”.
Quiet at the back: how to adapt classrooms The National Deaf Children’s Society offers tools for teachers and parents – including clips of what a noisy classroom sounds like to children with hearing problems.
The organisation recommends rudimentary solutions including shutting windows and doors, turning off dormant electrical equipment and fixing soft pads to chair or table legs to reduce scraping noises.
It also suggests installing sound-absorbing tiles and rubber compression seals to doors. Most of these are likely to be covered by the Equality Act’s requirement for schools to make reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils.