London South Bank University Faculty of Egineering, Science and the Built Environment
Project - Identifying a Sound Environment for Secondary Schools (ISESS)
LSBU in association with

In-depth

Background

The largest and most significant school building programme for over 50 years is currently being undertaken in the UK. Under the 'Building Schools for the Future' initiative, all secondary schools in England are to be refurbished or rebuilt over the next ten to fifteen years, at a cost of over £45 billion. In addition, the City Academies initiative is creating many new flagship academy schools in towns and cities around the UK.

These initiatives have provided a stimulating challenge to the architecture profession; many of the new buildings are visually exciting and several have won architectural awards. However, despite the cutting edge visual aesthetic of many new schools, the acoustic environment appears not to have a similar high priority.

Given that there are currently around 3.7 million pupils and 330,000 teachers and other staff in secondary schools in the UK, the acoustic conditions in secondary schools affect the daily lives of a large number of people. As a result of unsuitable acoustic conditions in many schools the Department for Education and Skills (now DCSF) in 2003 introduced new acoustic performance standards for new schools under the Building Regulations. These standards, together with guidance on the acoustic design of schools, are contained within Building Bulletin 93 (BB93) [1].

Acoustic and noise surveys of schools built before 2003 by Dockrell and Shield [2, 3] showed that, in primary schools, few classrooms comply with current requirements. There is increasing evidence that the current requirements are similarly not being achieved in new school buildings, in part due to the current design trend that favours hard reflective materials and large open spaces, which increase noise and reverberation in buildings.

Recently leading educationalists such as Professor Tim Brighouse and Sir Cyril Taylor have expressed concern at current designs which lead to high noise levels in new schools [4], thereby not providing a suitable environment for teaching and learning. BB93 allows for 'alternative performance standards' if appropriate, provided they can be justified, and many design teams are using these rather than strive to achieve the more stringent basic targets.

The situation has been exacerbated by the inclusion, in 2006, of ventilation into the relevant Building Regulations, compliance requirements being contained in Building Bulletin 101: Ventilation of School Buildings (BB101) [5]. In order for school buildings to be as sustainable as possible natural ventilation is recommended.

It can be difficult to simultaneously achieve the acoustic and natural ventilation requirements, particularly in urban schools, although with thoughtful planning, design and attention to detail, it is possible to comply with both the acoustic and ventilation requirements. However, meetings with architects, engineers and acoustic consultants, for example in the Acoustics and Ventilation Working Group of the British Council for School Environments, show an increasing prevalence of the view that the acoustic requirements within BB93 are unnecessarily stringent and should be relaxed, on grounds of technical difficulties or cost in meeting them. Because so many new schools are being built, each containing a large number of classrooms, even a small change in acoustic specifications would make a large difference to the building budgets across local authorities, but could be unacceptable in terms of its effects on pupils and teachers.

Research over the past 40 years, has shown that noise and poor acoustics have a detrimental effect upon teaching, learning and teachers' health [6, 7, 8, 9]. However, most of this research has focused on primary schools. Far less is known about the acoustic quality of secondary schools and the impact of noise and poor acoustics upon children of secondary school age. The evidence from primary schools is that the effect of noise on pupils' behaviour and attainment is complex, depending not only on classroom conditions and individual factors concerning the child, but also on the learning task being undertaken. Noise has more of an impact upon the older children in the primary school age range, although the reasons for this are not fully understood. Demands on pupils' cognitive abilities and behaviours increase significantly in secondary schools. Pupils are taught by subject specialists, move classrooms, have less opportunity for individual support and are exposed to different pedagogic approaches. Consequently, the evidence from primary schools suggests that secondary school children are disadvantaged by current poor acoustic environments, However, it is not possible to extrapolate directly from an understanding of primary school children to those at secondary school.

Furthermore, although there is an important interplay between factors in the built environment and their impact on children's learning and development, to date little attempt has been made to examine the way these factors work together to alter learning and academic attainments. A recent review of school buildings [10] highlighted the lack of research into the impact of air quality and temperature on children's learning. The current proposal will take account of these additional factors by examining the ways in which they interact with acoustic conditions and affect the impact of acoustics on pupils' learning.

With education and the provision of new school buildings currently high on the political agenda, and in view of the current debate concerning a possible revision BB93, the research proposed here is particularly timely. Output from the research will provide evidence to either reinforce the current requirements of BB93, or to inform any revision of the performance standards either for secondary school pupils generally or for specific teaching contexts and specific pupil groups. Furthermore it will provide guidance on classroom strategies to enable teachers to identify situations where noise levels will compromise pupils' learning and make appropriate adjustments to ameliorate these effects.

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Research plan

The major part of the project consists of experimental testing of pupils while they carry out tasks in a range of acoustic and noise conditions. The development of the test materials will be a major task involving noise and acoustic surveys and analysis, design of a battery of cognitive tests, and development of a method of presentation for the tests.

If you would like any further information please email: Robert Conetta [conettar@lsbu.ac.uk].

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References

  1. Building Bulletin 93 Acoustic Design of Schools, Department for Education and Skills, 2003.
  2. Shield, B.M. and Dockrell, J.E. (2004) External and internal noise surveys of London primary schools. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 115(2), 730-738.
  3. Carey, A., Shield, B., Dockrell, J. and Rigby, K. (2005) A survey of classroom acoustics and remedial treatments. Proceedings Institute of Acoustics 27.
  4. 'You can't teach in a glass palace', The Guardian, 7 February 2006.
  5. Building Bulletin 101: Ventilation of School Buildings. Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2006.
  6. Shield, B.M. and Dockrell, J.E. The effects of noise on children at school: a review. J. Building Acoustics 10(2), 97-106, 2003.
  7. Evans, G.W. and Lepore, S.J. Nonauditory effects of noise on children: a critical review. Children's Environments, 10(1), 31-51, 1993.
  8. Shield, B.M. and Dockrell, J.E. (2008) The effects of environmental and classroom noise on the academic attainments of primary school children. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 123(1), 133-144.
  9. Dockrell, J.E. and Shield, B.M. (2006) Acoustical barriers in classrooms: the impact of noise on performance in the classroom, British Educational Research Journal 32(3), 509-525.
  10. Wall, K. Dockrell. J.E. & Peacey, N. in press The built environment of the primary school; impacts on pupil learning and attainment and staff and pupil wellbeing Research Survey 6/1.

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