A Complete Guide to School Acoustic Design

Under-resourcing and a lack of funding have meant that school acoustics in many educational establishments in the UK often overlooked. Classroom overcrowding often means that lessons spill out into the corridors and large sports halls are often used for a multitude of activities, such as canteens and assembly areas.

Whether you’re a Senior Leader in an educational setting, or a designer involved in the refurbishment of a school, this guide sets out to highlight how you can improve school acoustic comfort for both staff and students.

The UK Department for Education’s Acoustic Design of Schools: Performance Standards Building Bulletin 93 sets out minimum performance standards for the acoustics of school buildings. This regulatory guidance describes how acoustic considerations play a key part in any school building.

When school buildings provide acoustic conditions that enable effective teaching and learning, children can reach their potential, and staff can enjoy a healthier school environment.

In this guide:

Common school acoustic issues

Many schools in the UK are older buildings. There is also a large majority of schools which were refurbished to accommodate for larger class sizes. In the same way, there has also been past popularity for open plan designs with retractable partition walls.

The examples above highlight how school building design can be the source of poor acoustics in classrooms.

The most common acoustics issues we see time after time are long reverberation times, high levels of noise transmission between classrooms, and poor speech intelligibility. All of this makes it hard for pupils to focus on lessons, impacting their concentration and productivity.

It can also cause school staff untold stress in trying to timetable that English exam when Science is doing noisy experiments next door. Or the music room is right next to individual learning rooms just as the drums are being pulled out for use.

Fortunately, these common issues can be remedied with simple acoustic changes such as sound absorption panels and soundproofing in between rooms.

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Can poor acoustics affect attainment in schools?

Background noise and reverberation, like any persistent noise, can impact many tasks you do. However, for children in a classroom, tasks from reading and mental maths to problem-solving and memory recall can all be affected.

Poor acoustic spaces can detrimentally impact pupils learning and attainment in school.

Background noise has been shown to significantly impact children’s test performance in schools, while children sitting in the back row of a classroom are thought to only hear 50% of their teacher’s words.

Issues with acoustics in classrooms were also recorded to persist throughout their child’s school years as children are unable to acclimatise to noise as adults can.

Evidence proves that poor acoustic spaces can negatively affect children’s learning, but also their mental health. Children exposed to high noise levels at school are more prone to psychological stress and disruptive behaviour.

Can poor acoustics affect creativity in schools?

When it comes to creativity and wellbeing, children in poor acoustic environments are shown to be less creative and focussed.

Classrooms with high levels of background noise cause children to struggle with selective attention skills, working memory, and idea generation.

Children are more sensitive listeners than adults and cannot simply block out background noises. This often means teachers and senior leaders don’t even realise how poor an acoustic environment their school is as they can’t perceive it in the same way that their pupils do.

The impact of background noise and reverberation in schools has a greater impact on students than might first be realised. Improving schools and classrooms with acoustic treatment can help reduce stress on pupils while improving their focus, creativity, and attainment.

Sound Zero | Why Should Schools Consider Acoustic Treatment?

How to improve classroom acoustics?

In classrooms, the main acoustic issue is often reverberation. This is the reflecting or bouncing around of sound waves in the background. High levels cause the brain to constantly be working hard to make sense of your surroundings, trying to pinpoint where sounds are coming from.

In corridors, stairwells, and high traffic areas, the main acoustic issue is often high levels of sounds transferring into adjacent rooms. External noise can be distracting for pupils in lessons, and therefore acoustic treatment such as soundproofing is paramount.

In schools, noise can often be transmitted through floors, doors, ceilings, and through the HVAC (Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system.

Detecting where noise is coming from and targeting that specific problem is the first step to a school with high acoustic quality.

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Implement acoustic treatment

There are many ways to treat poor acoustics in schools, the first steps often being cost-effective and simple steps that teachers themselves can make. However, for controlling reverberation and noise transmission, acoustic treatment is the most effective method.

There are many methods to implement noise control with acoustic treatment such as acoustic wall panels, soundproofing and ceiling baffles. These products absorb the sound and stop it from transmitting back into the room or through a partition into a joining space.

Each solution of acoustic treatment will be different depending on the severity of the challenges in the space as well as the needs of the school and its staff and pupils. For example, SEN pupils require much less reverberation time and higher speech intelligibility than other students.

Acoustically treated spaces supply a much better classroom and learning experience due to providing significantly better sound quality, which in turn creates conditions for better concentration, achievement and wellbeing for pupils and teachers alike.

School acoustics design improves SEN provision

The 2010 Equality Act places a responsibility on all schools to prepare and introduce strategies that improve their accessibility plans for now and in the future for disabled pupils and staff.

This includes improving the extent to which disabled students, and pupils with special educational needs, can participate in lessons. especially for facilities and benefits which are already available to pupils without a disability. As specified in the BB93 (Building Bulletin 93), this includes the provision of physical aids and acoustic improvements.

As pupils with hearing impairments and special educational needs are more sensitive to noise, their need for high-quality acoustics in classrooms and other school spaces is extremely important.

Autistic children are often particularly auditory hypersensitive, meaning they are sensitive to certain sounds. This can trigger behaviours such as avoiding spaces with certain noises, covering their ears, and outbursts. A controlled and enhanced acoustic environment is essential to improving their wellbeing and behaviour response in school environments.

For SEN schools, using only Class A soundproofing and absorption is important, as this standard is the most efficient. Yet don’t be fooled by what is advertised on a product data sheet, quite often you will see a Class A absorption rating for a product but only when it is used in a certain way or in combination with other materials. Always seek the advice of an acoustics expert before deciding what materials to use and their placement.

Using ceiling tiles or suspended baffles is also recommended as the ceiling is a large open surface area for sound to travel across uninterrupted. These acoustic treatments will absorb both mid and high frequencies.

Acoustic solutions for dining rooms & sports halls

Many schools often report that in large, open spaces, such as dining rooms and sports hall, high noise levels can soon escalate. The hard-flat surfaces in exam halls, drama theatres, and canteens bounce sound around like no other.

Walls made from concrete or brick are highly noise reflective, when compounded with parallel facing walls, reverberation times can skyrocket, and speech intelligibility can go out the window.

Sports halls, dining rooms, exam halls and theatre spaces are all key areas in schools where special acoustic considerations must be made.

Acoustic technology today is so advanced that you may be surprised how few acoustic panels you might need to install. You can also use acoustic ceiling treatment to keep your sports hall functional for high impact ball games and excitable children.

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Acoustic design in school music & media departments

Recording and podcast studios, as well as music studios and radio spaces, are also a key area in schools where acoustic treatment is vital to keep classrooms undisturbed and music lessons on track.

Creative media spaces such as these give schools the ability to be more creative with how they deliver the curriculum. They also give more non-academic pupils the opportunity to excel as well as SEN pupils a space to discover new ways of learning.

Then there is the key benefit that technology-enriched spaces like these have for students’ emotional and mental wellbeing. These spaces supply an outlet for originality and a place to develop skills they can use outside of the classroom.

When schools are given funding for recording studios or podcast stations, using that budget wisely to get the most out of the space is a must. That’s why integrating acoustic treatment into these settings is so important.

Regardless of how advanced the sound system and technology are, if the setting is a poor acoustic space, the potential is lost. Soundproofing and acoustic treatment will amplify the capabilities of any technology whether in a music studio or radio room.

Even more important, if the music spaces in your school are not protected against noise transmission to neighbouring rooms, you will be impacting the learning of pupils in adjacent classrooms.

Do university lecture halls need acoustic treatment?

Acoustics in university lecture theatres can be challenging to perfect. With them being large open spaces and usually occupied by nearly 300 students at any one time, noise can be a big issue.

Speech intelligibility, which is the clearness in communication, is a key aspect when considering acoustic treatment in a lecture hall space.

Students in all parts the room must be able to clearly understand and hear their professor at the front of the hall.

Sound Zero | How important are acoustics in university lecture halls?

When these halls have ascending rows of seating it allows for sound to travel efficiently to the back of the room. However, we must then provide a solution for those sound waves to be carefully controlled, with little to know absorption the sound will echo back into the room. Too much absorption and the sound will deaden too quickly before reaching the back of the hall.

In the lecture theatres where voices don’t carry, we must also make sure that lecturers are not straining their voices. A solution for this is controlling reverb in the space and improving the clearness of projected sound. Using diffusion techniques, and acoustic panels to the perimeter wall and ceiling surfaces, you can achieve an equal dispersion of sound waves to every seat in the room.

If the back wall is curved, acoustic treatment will be a must. This causes sound to reflect at angles that cause focussing.

Conclusion

There are many do’s and don’ts for school acoustics but the main takeaway from this guide is the focal need to improve the general audio quality for pupils and teachers.

Acoustically treated environments provide a better overall school experience, with healthier and happier classrooms supporting concentration, achievement and wellbeing for pupils and teachers.

Whether you need maximum noise reduction or slight adjustments to your classroom acoustics, we can help. We have helped many schools and organisations improve their school acoustics over the years. Please do not hesitate to contact us today to go over our unique acoustic solutions for schools that can help your students achieve better concentration.

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