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All-Inclusive Classrooms: How the Internal Acoustics of Classrooms Affect Learning Outcomes In School

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All-Inclusive Classrooms: How the Internal Acoustics of Classrooms Affect Learning Outcomes In School

With the start of a new school year happening in the next few coming days, we can be thankful that some kind of normality is returning to our children’s classrooms after what has been a disruptive and trying time for teachers, staff, children and parents alike. With home learning hopefully becoming a thing of the past, our classrooms are having to adapt to the challenges associated with Covid-19 so that they can open safely, without affecting the learning outcomes for children.

Our experiences at school aren’t just centred around our friends, teachers and grades; we often attach sentiment to the place we studied in as well, often reflecting on what it would be like to walk through that classroom, sports hall or corridor again years later.

A poorly designed school building will stick in the mind for all the wrong reasons. We’ve all been in a room in which we couldn’t hear the teacher or speaker because the space was improperly designed acoustically.

If we can’t hear in the classroom, it isn’t just grades that are impacted; it is also our experiences. There are many pupils who are more sensitive to sound than others, where poor acoustics can also have serious implications for learning outcomes.

HA Acoustics are passionate about ensuring that educational spaces are acoustically optimised to ensure that classrooms are perfect for all learners.

Bigger Classes: A Growing Problem

Noise In Classrooms

In 2017, it was reported by The BBC that the average size of a class in secondary state schools is 36 children, with some classes having as many as 40.

 The figure for primary schools is just as high; The Independent reports that the state primary school sector averages between 31 and 35 pupils per classroom.

A 2018 report from The BBC stated that a shortage of “suitable special needs funding means growing numbers of children are being left without suitable school places”.

As a result, the number of pupils in mainstream schools with special educational needs is rising and ensuring that they are experiencing learning with the same accessibility as all children.

With the size of classes growing; so will noise levels. In a room with 36 children who all want to be heard, there is bound to be a greater amount of sound generated.

Teacher’s  voices will need to carry further, as the back row of a class gets further away as class sizes grow, pupils will have to speak louder to answer the questions of their teachers and peers, and more voices engaged in general day-to-day classroom chatter will cause ambient noise levels to creep gradually higher and higher.

For students with special educational needs, this noise can be a distraction. Moreover; it can be distressing.

For example; a child with a hearing aid doesn’t have the same ability to filter out all this extra noise going on around them as hearing aids aren’t designed to pick out the important sounds in the same way the human ear can.

There are 35 other children making their own noises; fidgeting, chatting, banging pens and pencils, and a teacher tapping on a board while explaining a complex topic to their class.

The hearing aid isn’t filtering out all that extra noise; it’s picking it all up and the child trying to focus on their learning is at risk of becoming anxious or distressed because the sound of the teacher’s voice is getting lost among it all.

Poorly designed room acoustics in this setting would likely make this worse, as a high reverberation time can cause the background noise level to increase, and causes children and teachers to raise their voices even more.

The learning outcomes for this student will be negatively impacted as a result.

The Austin Journal Of Neurological Diseases And Epilepsy published a study in 2015 on the implications of noise levels in mainstream schools for children with special educational needs.

The study states that:

“For speech to be intelligibly heard, it needs to perceived about three times louder (15 dB LAeq,30mins higher in sound level) than the background noise.”

 This demonstrates the importance of proper acoustics in schools. For architects working to provide all-inclusive classroom to all students, working with acoustic consultants who are passionate about championing these important values can be a huge benefit to their development or project.

The Importance Of Quality Acoustics

Noisy Classroom

BB93 lays out the requirements that educational buildings should be meeting in order to ensure that acoustics are at their best for the purpose of successful learning and teaching.

Indoor ambient noise levels (IANL) for standard classrooms in new-builds should not exceed 35dB LAeq,30mins, (40dB LAeq,30mins in refurbished buildings). This means that students learning isn’t interrupted by noises from external noise sources, as well as other indoor noises from ventilation and air conditioning.

 The classroom façade is used to protect against noise from outside sources (e.g. road traffic, rail, aircraft etc). The build-up of the classroom façade consists of the wall construction, glazing and ventilation system. The weakest elements in terms of acoustics are the glazing and natural ventilation systems.

In areas that are quieter outside, natural ventilation is often used, which means classroom windows can be open to provide ventilation. In areas that are loud outside, high-performance acoustic glazing is used alongside either mechanical, or hybrid ventilation systems, which help to stop sound from entering the classroom.

Covid-19, the importance of natural ventilation and the impact this has on learning

Open Window ventilation

Whilst we are all aware of the challenges associated with home learning after the last year, we should now prepare for the challenges associated with getting the classroom back to normal.

It is understood that the Department for Education (DfE) is to prioritise the circulation of fresh air inside classrooms when children return to school this September (The Guardian). It should be noted that there is an existing requirement for CO2 levels in classrooms under the Building Regulations: Approved Document F which is taken into account when designing a classroom, but the new guidance goes one step further. New guidance on ventilation after emerging from lockdown is available from CIBSE.

Whilst the current research shows that an increase in airflow from outside may slow the spread of coronavirus, it does have a knock-on effect with regards to noise levels in classrooms, which may also affect classroom learning.

As stated in the sections above, natural ventilation systems are generally used when external noise levels are very low. With the new requirements for increasing ventilation in classrooms (due to covid-19), we can expect internal noise levels in classrooms to be raised significantly in schools that are next to loud external noise sources. This may be especially difficult for children with Special Educational Needs.

The safety of children and teaching staff should always be the most important aspect that is considered and increasing ventilation in classrooms is currently seen as a way of improving safety. The impact of increased noise levels associated with this should not be discounted and inventive solutions should be sort after where possible, to ensure inclusive learning for students.


The All-Inclusive Classroom

The sensory experiences of a child with special educational needs should be at the forefront of an architect or specifiers mind when designing an education space.

By properly managing the acoustic integrity of a school, classrooms become places that are suitable for all learners and educators, regardless of their education needs.

For learning outcomes for pupils with all manner of learning requirements can be improved hugely.  Managed in a way that reduces the potential for loud, interruptive sounds disturbing learning, making listening and concentrating easier for all.

Schools are busier and louder than they have ever been and ensuring that they are designed with all children in mind is the top priority of HA Acoustics.

HA Acoustics pride ourselves on providing excellent acoustic consultancy to all educational facilities, ensuring that they are in line with BB93 Design regulations, creating all-inclusive learning environments.

The challenges of home working through Covid-19 have gone for now, but we must adapt our children’s classrooms to be safe, while also realising that the increase in background noise may adversely affect some children more than others. For the sake of their education we should look at creative and technical solutions to solve this issue as soon as possible.

If you enjoyed our content, we post regulary in the HA Acoustics Blog.

Picture of Stuart Cumming

Stuart Cumming

MSc, BSc(Hons), MIOA

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