Could we have a little less noise, please?

26th November 2004 at 00:00
Few schools would merit the description "restful". They are, in the main, busy, noisy places, full of diverse activity, laughter and movement. This is to be expected as they are partly intended to be public spaces in which young people learn to interact with each other, communicate with adults and develop a range of social skills.

The pace of school life is itself a source of noise, with time-limited transitions between different parts of the building and restricted periods of play at intervals and lunchtime. Add to this the natural energy, fun and exuberance of youth and the recipe for a bustling, lively environment is complete. Many youngsters enjoy the buzz of school life and find it entirely unproblematic.

However, for some children schools are not particularly comfortable places to be. They find the noise and bustle intimidating and rather frightening.

They may prefer their own company or the company of a few friends to spending a lot of time in the larger groups which form the staple of school life. In any school there are likely to be a few bewildered souls who try to remain invisible in the face of what they regard as a constant assault on their ears and the sheer physical invasiveness of much of what happens.

I sometimes wonder how much sensitivity there is to their plight. Some adults are less than sympathetic. Their reaction takes the form of saying that pupils who experience such anxiety should learn to toughen up: they argue that everybody has to encounter noise and pressure in many other contexts and that school is a relatively protected environment most of the time.

That view, however, might be disputed by the significant number of young people who see school as a major arena of bullying.

Some schools do attempt to provide quiet rooms away from the hustle of the routine work of the school. That is to be commended but such rooms tend to be used for crisis cases following upsetting classroom incidents. A question worth posing is: "Could schools do more to create a climate which offers reassurance to those children who find the institution a bit overwhelming?"

This may become an increasingly important question to ask as more parents are exercising their right to withdraw their children from school and educate them at home - still very much a minority, but growing.

Often the reason for such a decision is a feeling that the school environment is experienced as oppressive and insufficient attention is given to the needs of the individual child.

Without a major rethink of the way schools operate, there are definite limits to what can be done, but some pointers can be gained from the work of certain teachers who seem to carry an aura of calm about them which communicates itself to others.

They refuse to be provoked or unduly pressurised by the pace of school life. They have a good understanding of the particular pupils in their care and keep the focus of classroom work on learning rather than discipline for its own sake. Most pupils respond to this and, for a time at least, the usual frenetic atmosphere subsides.

What is really required, however, is a more fundamental review of the organisational pattern of schools, particularly secondary schools, linked to some creative thinking about how school architecture can provide quiet spaces for those who sometimes need to retreat from the relentless clamour of school life.

The only trouble is that the areas of retreat might be quickly monopolised by the staff rather than the pupils.

Walter Humes is professor of education at the University of Aberdeen.

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