Schools Are Back - But How Inclusive Do They Sound and How Can You Tell ?
Across the UK, the sound of children starting back at school fills our schools, but many will be facing classrooms that are not fit for purpose acoustically. Most school stock does not provide acceptable conditions for pupils to hear their teachers properly, and this makes retaining new information harder than it needs to be because of the cognitive load caused by the brain trying to filter out the noise. This is compounded if you have temporary or permanent hearing impairment or a special educational need, so why are classrooms not designed to be optimal for all ?
All new schools need to comply with minimum acoustic standards, but that does not mean optimal standards, and for those with hearing impairment where the provision was not included they may not have a suitable space available, so even our new schools are failing them in many cases. With 85% of deaf children now being taught in mainstream schools there is an attainment gap building (NDCS report 2010).
The technical evidence base supports that low background noise of 30dBA and a low reverberation time of 0.4 to 0.5 seconds is optimal for speech for all pupils, which can be usually dealt with by a retro fit, but it is much more cost effective to get this done at the time of building, but contractors won't do it unless they have to. The win win for getting this right at the start means that all spaces will be suitable for all, and research shows this will benefit their learning outcomes. Imagine that those pupils starting back have no obstacle to learning because of the classroom they are in - it is hard to justify otherwise.
This leaves a gap at present, and no clear route for funding upgrades currently, although this may be about to change if the Department of Education permits acoustics to be eligible for Conditional Improvement Funding (CIF) applications. Nevertheless it leaves most of the school stock not suitable for inclusive learning, which is a sad indictment for our society in 2018. The Governments school report reads - "Could do better on acoustics", who have passed the responsibility to the school client bodies to make sure they are "suitable for their intended use" under the School Premises Regulations.
If you are part of a school client body trying to get new schools right, or a teacher with voice strain, or a parent unsure whether your child is being educated in complainant learning spaces get in touch as we can help. Below are some easy checks to decide whether it is likely a space is non complaint with the minimum and if evidence of a full acoustic assessment is needed to demonstrate that it is adequate in use, as is the legal responsibility of the school. These include :
Stand in the middle of the classroom and clap once loudly, with a cupped hand - if the sound dies away quickly this is good, if you can detect the reflections going on for longer than half a second this may not be good enough if your child has hearing impairment. If longer than a second it will not be adequate for a normal hearing pupil in a secondary school.
Sit quietly in the class room and listen, with any assisted ventilation on at least medium setting, or windows open slightly where there is none. If it is as quiet as you would expect your bedroom to be, (ie. without distractions from outside), then this may be adequate. If not, it probably is inadequate.
Ask someone to go next door to the next classroom and talk their way through the alphabet in a raised voice, then a normal voice. If you can hear them clearly in either situation it is unlikely the sound insulation is adequate. If you can not understand the letters for a raised voice, or not hear it at all it may have adequate sound insulation.
If you have a hard of hearing child there is a tool kit available to help you from the National Deaf Children's society (NDCS), and the Equality Act 2010 requires the school to make adequate provision.