Don't say cheers? Acoustic standards under threat in bid to ease way for Gove's vanguard

25th February 2011 at 00:00
Campaigners warn of 'disastrous' consequences as Gove tries to scale back 'ridiculous bureaucratic' building regulations

Government plans to water down school acoustic standards in a bid to kick-start its free-schools policy will have "disastrous consequences" for teachers and pupils, charity groups and campaigners have warned.

Education secretary Michael Gove called for a rethink on regulations to make it easier for parents to set up free schools, describing the hundreds of pages as "ridiculous bureaucratic nonsense".

He wants parents, teachers or community groups to be able to set up free schools in a variety of buildings, from pubs and pet shops to funeral homes (see box).

But both the Institute of Acoustics (IoA) and the National Deaf Children's Society (NCDS) have written to ministers, saying scrapping acoustics standards risks damaging chances of learning.

Attainment could be lowered if pupils are unable to hear lessons properly, with deaf and other special educational needs students particularly badly affected, ministers have been told.

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has launched a full-scale review of building regulations in an attempt to slash red tape.

Bad classroom acoustics can also lead to permanent damage to teachers' voices. Joyce Walters, who taught English to foreign students at Harlington Adult Education Centre in Hillingdon, north-west London, was awarded #163;150,000 in compensation by Hillingdon Council in November after permanently damaging her voice trying to make herself heard in a classroom next to a noisy children's play area.

In a letter to communities minister Andrew Stunell, IoA president Trevor Cox wrote: "There is a substantial body of scientific evidence that poor acoustics are linked with impaired cognitive performance in children.

"Put simply, if pupils are unable to hear what they are being taught they are less likely to be able to learn. Pupils with special educational needs are especially disadvantaged."

Professor Cox added that removing or watering down acoustics controls would risk England "slipping back to the bad old days of sub- standard acoustics in schools, which is likely to have disastrous consequences for future generations of pupils".

The NDCS's Sounds Good? report showed that just one in five local authorities could confirm that their schools met existing Government standards on acoustics - something the Labour government promised to act on.

Deputy policy and campaigns director Jo Campion said: "We are very concerned. Good acoustics can help improve the learning and behaviour of all pupils, and are essential for England's 35,000 deaf children, the majority of whom are now being taught in mainstream schools."

She added: "If the Government doesn't enforce acoustic tests for all new schools or those undergoing major refurbishment, thousands of deaf children will be sitting in a classroom where they can't hear their teacher."

A spokesperson for Partnerships for Schools, which provides technical advice on school premises, said: "We are looking at the full range of existing regulations and guidance concerning school building and maintenance - and acoustics will form a part of this."

FREE SCHOOLS - Easy does it

Michael Gove called for planning laws to be relaxed last year to boost his flagship free-schools policy.

Under the proposals published, these could be opened in converted pubs, undertakers, pet shops and hairdressing salons.

Anybody hoping to set up a free school would require planning permission, but under the education secretary's plans building regulations will be pared back to make it easier for groups to open free schools.

Other buildings listed that could be used include takeaways, betting offices, ice rinks and banks.

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