Sound advice

20th June 2008 at 01:00
Noise can be bad for pupils and teachers, but architects put style over learning, says Bridget Shield

Noise can be bad for pupils and teachers, but architects put style over learning, says Bridget Shield

See the spacious, light-filled palaces going up under the government's multi-billion pound school building bonanza. They look wonderful and, with their lack of dark corners, make pupils feel safe. But how well can pupils hear inside these educational glasshouses?

I am worried that the priorities of the current building and refurbishment programme are wrong. While many new schools have award-winning visual designs, the acoustics are often overlooked. I believe sound is far more important than appearance in creating an environment suitable for teaching and learning.

Acoustical problems in schools are not a recent phenomenon; they have been written about for 100 years. Many classrooms, in new and older schools, are reverberant andor too noisy, making it difficult for children to hear and for teachers to speak. But the problem is made worse by current architectural trends, which employ large areas of hard reflecting surfaces such as steel and glass. These are precisely the types of material that make for echoing, noisy spaces.

Another problem is the current fashion for large open spaces in buildings. These may look good but are not suitable acoustically for teaching.

A poor acoustic environment affects pupils in different ways. Reverberation and noise combine to make it difficult for children to understand what their teacher is saying. This can be even more of a problem for children with hearing or language difficulties, or other special needs.

Noise also interferes when pupils do classroom tasks. Children are aware of and annoyed by noise that distracts them. In particular, interference by speech affects working memory, which reduces performance on reading and spelling. This is particularly difficult in open-plan schools where children will be disturbed by neighbouring classes unless there is co- ordinated teaching.

Studies have focused on the effects of aircraft noise on pupils but there is an increasing amount of research into the impact of other types of noise. Recent research carried out in London primary schools has found that test results are affected by aircraft noise, road traffic and general environmental sounds, and by background noise in the classroom.

A team of researchers from London South Bank University and the Institute of Education found that key stage 2 Sat scores were related to the noise of external events such as buses passing or sirens, as well as to background noise levels in the classroom. The team also carried out experimental testing of children, which showed that verbal tasks were affected by classroom babble, while non-verbal tasks were more affected by environmental noise.

However, it is not just children who are affected by the poor acoustic design of classrooms. There is increasing awareness of voice and throat problems among teachers, often occurring as a direct result of having to raise their voices in the classroom.

A survey in 2002 by the Voice Care Network (www.voicecare.org.uk) of voice clinics around the UK found that teachers accounted for 12 per cent of patients (despite being only 1.5 per cent of the workforce). Similar figures have been found in Canada and elsewhere.

The techniques for reducing reverberation and noise in schools are well known. They include:

- Careful choice of the site, layout and design of school buildings to ensure noise sensitive rooms such as classrooms are not adjacent to busy roads or railways.

- Adequate sound insulation to reduce the transmission of noise from outside to inside, and between classrooms.

- Adequate amount of acoustic absorption on ceilings and corridors, and carpets or other resilient floor coverings to reduce reverberation.

- Use of quiet building services such as ventilation, heating and lighting.

Since 2003, the acoustic design of schools has been included in the Building Regulations. Every new school must comply with criteria for specifying maximum noise and reverberation levels and standards for sound insulation specified in Building Bulletin 93 (BB93). However, the bulletin allows for alternative performance standards, provided these can be justified by a design team for educational, environmental or health and safety reasons.

This allows many design teams to get away with lower acoustical standards to reduce the cost of a building or avoid modifying a visually exciting design. I have even heard one of our leading architects say of Building Bulletin 93: "It is stifling our creativity".

So there are still too many classrooms where children struggle to hear and teachers struggle to make themselves heard - and the number may even be growing. We are in danger of missing an opportunity to rectify design flaws that impede children's progress and affect teachers' health

Bridget Shield is Professor of Acoustics in the Faculty of Engineering, Science and the Built Environment at London South Bank University

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR VOICE

- Keep hydrated. Drink plenty of water and avoid too much caffeine or alcohol.

- Don't smoke or eat very spicy food.

- Keep your shoulder, neck and jaw muscles relaxed with gentle stretching exercises every day.

- Breathe deeply from the centre muscles of the lower ribs and abdomen.

- Warm up your voice with gentle humming (sliding up and down the pitch scale) and tongue-twisters every morning.

- Don't shout over background noise. Use a whistle, bell or clapping to get attention.

- Give your voice a breather. Use your body to express emotion as well.

- Humidify your classroom with bowls of water near radiators and open windows.

- Rest the voice if you have a cold.

- Try not to clear your throat excessively. Instead, swallow hard or sip water.

- If hoarseness persists for longer than three weeks, consult your GP.

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