To the ears of John Thorpe, head of Saints Osmund and Andrew RC Primary in Bolton, there is nothing better than the sound of children playing happily. "I find it thoroughly uplifting," he says. But local residents do not always hear it that way. Over the years there have been regular gripes about playground noise, including one about excessively loud laughter. The school's "bellowing" PE teacher has also caused annoyance. So has the school bell.
But unlike Barlby Primary in North Yorkshire, where ball games were banned after complaints, Mr Thorpe refuses to compromise playtime. "It's an important part of a child's development," he says.
Instead, the school has staggered its breaks, re-designed the play area, and pointed the school bell upwards. These measures, and dialogue between the school and its neighbours, seem to have had the desired effect. "People appreciate that we've made an effort," he says.
But these disputes are not always settled so amicably, in which case it falls to the local environmental health department to make a judgment. But how much disturbance is acceptable? The answer is far from clear. "Confusingly, there are several different British standards relating to acceptable noise limits," says Steve Garritt, of noise consultants Samp;D Garritt, the firm called in to measure decibel levels at Barlby Primary. "In any case, an environmental health officer isn't obliged to take account of those standards. There's a strong element of subjectivity."
Records suggest it is very rare for school noise to be deemed "a statutory nuisance". The fact that playground hubbub is restricted to set times usually counts in a school's favour, as does the fact that noise occurs during the day rather than at night.
There is also an unspoken feeling that if someone buys a house next to a school, they can hardly complain about the din. Noise concerns are taken more seriously when considering applications for new school buildings or plans to use facilities out of hours.
If a school does have to cut down on noise, one option is soundproof fencing. Typically two metres high and made from either wood, metal or plastic, an "acoustic fence" is completely solid, meaning there are no gaps for sound to pass through.
"It's far more effective than hedges, trees, or an ordinary fence," says Vincent Demarest, managing director of Buffalo Fence Ltd. "A few years ago we installed one round a school playing field in Oxfordshire, and both the school and the residents are very happy."
But while acoustic fencing will make a difference, noise can still travel over the top. Barlby Primary, for example, already has an acoustic fence, but that has not stopped neighbours complaining.
There is no way of predicting what kind or level of noise will cause annoyance. "Hearing is closely linked to our emotions," says Mr Garritt. "Different people respond to noise in very different ways." In other words, whether or not you get complaints probably has less to do with how raucous your playground is and more to do with how aurally sensitive - or downright grumpy - your immediate neighbours happen to be.
How to minimise disturbance
- Consider staggering break-time.
- Ensure there are playground seating areas where children can chat quietly.
- Have a designated ball-playing area as far as possible from adjoining houses.
- Install acoustic fencing around the perimeter. www.buffalo- fence.co.uk
- Hold regular meetings with residents.