Listen up, quieten down

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Sharon Airey explains how research aims to help children with impaired hearing. Classrooms can be noisy places. It is a lucky teacher who can spend a day talking in a normal conversational tone and be heard by every child in the class. Having a sore throat at the end of the week seems an occupational hazard.

But it can lead to more serious problems. Frances Oldfield, a Merseyside teacher, sought compensation when she claimed her loss of voice was an "industrial injury". The TES (October 8, 1993) reported: "Frances Oldfield believes a key factor in her case was her open-plan school; background noise was a problem."

Today's typical classroom has external and internal noise, all making it difficult for the children to hear what the teacher is saying. Hearing-impaired children are even more susceptible to noise interference than normally hearing children under the same conditions. Those with hearing aids will find them of little use against background noise. Hearing aids amplify all sound, wanted and unwanted.

Since the 1981 Education Act more children with hearing impairments are being integrated into mainstream classes (in 1993, according to the Scottish Office, they accounted for 5.7 per cent of pupils in primary schools and 6.1 per cent in secondaries), but classroom standards of acoustics are not rising in line with these figures.

Pilot studies at Heriot-Watt University agree with world-wide research. All come to the conclusion that the standard of classroom acoustics is poor, but there are few, if any, guidelines for improvement.

St Giles is a centre for hearing-impaired children in Edinburgh. When it supervises the placement of a hearing-impaired child into a mainstream school, it gives advice on how best to cope with the child in the new class. However, when seeking guidelines to improve listening environments, the centre found these were seriously lacking. As 75 per cent of time in schools is spent speaking and listening, this seems alarming.

Children use their hearing for so many important functions, particularly in the early years - speech formation, vocabulary, developing relationships, learning new ideas and concepts. To neglect the listening environment where the majority of these skills are acquired could be depriving the child of vital input during the formative years.

A research project at Heriot-Watt university is investigating the acoustical conditions of Scotland's classrooms. This two-year project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council. Leading the research team is David MacKenzie, who is working alongside Professor Bob Craik - both experts in the field of acoustics. As a qualified teacher with extensive classroom experience I am their research associate.

The team worked closely with Central and Lothian Regional councils, and the Scottish Sensory Centre at Moray House Institute of Education. We will visit schools in the former Central and Lothian regions to take measurements and determine the acoustical conditions in Scottish schools.

We will take objective and subjective measurements of, for example, the level of background noise, the reverberation time of classrooms and the speech intelligibility of each classroom. We use specialised equipment to plot the "noise contours" of each tested room to identify the best listening locations in individual rooms. In each case, we will make suggestions to improve the listening conditions, supervise any improvements and acoustically test the changes.

On a wider scale, Heriot-Watt aims to establish guidelines for the best practical means of improving classroom acoustics to meet recognised standards. These guidelines will be available for architects designing new schools, and for existing schools hoping to improve the acoustical conditions of their classrooms.

This work forms part of the research of the Department of Building Engineering and Surveying at Heriot-Watt, investigating the use of buildings by disabled people. If you would like to be involved contact Sharon Airey at Heriot-Watt on 0131 449 5111, ext 4652.

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