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Acoustic design of secondary schools

Identifying a sound environment for secondary schools

EPSRC grant EP/G009767/1

The project produced an evidence-base about how poor acoustics affects teaching, performance and learning in secondary schools. In 2010, the Coalition Government threatened to abolish most legislation relating to the design and building of new schools. The results of this project have been influential in persuading the government to retain acoustic regulations in both the Building and School Premises Regulations. Investigators were instrumental in the Institute of Acoustics’ Sound Schools campaign which lobbied the government to retain acoustic regulations, and are members of government and industry review panels.

Noise levels and reverberation times (RT) were measured in 185 unoccupied spaces in 13 schools. The results showed that the introduction of the Regulations in 2003 helped to greatly improve the acoustic quality of new schools. Noise levels were measured during 282 lessons and found to have a very consistent average of 64 dBA. The lesson noise was positively correlated with RT and unoccupied ambient noise levels. Environmental parameters were also measured (e.g. CO2 count, relative humidity, temperature and light intensity). Classrooms with mechanical ventilation had higher background noise levels than those using natural ventilation. Most environmental parameters were uncorrelated with acoustic parameters. While there is a correlation between LAeq and CO2 count this arises because both are correlated to the number of students and classroom floor area. A regression model predicts a doubling in LAeq, with a 67% increase in student numbers.

We developed a questionnaire to capture opinions of the acoustic environment in secondary schools and surveyed 2588 pupils and 204 teachers. Adolescents were reliable judges of their school’s acoustic and the impacts of poor listening conditions on teaching and learning. Fours factors were identified: ease of hearing in school spaces, sensitivity to noise, the consequences of noise in the classroom, and annoyance to intermittent noise. Pupils reporting additional learning needs or speaking English as an additional language were significantly more negatively affected by poor acoustics. Pupils attending suburban schools in quieter areas with cellular classrooms rated their classroom environments significantly better than those learning in open plan spaces or exposed to external noise sources. Students indicated which rooms they found hard and easy to hear in. 106 rooms were cited for which acoustic data were available. The results suggest that the current standard of RT < 0.8 s for secondary school classrooms is appropriate.

We examined student’s accuracy and speed of performance on measures of literacy, word learning, numeracy and speed of information processing under different levels of noise exposure. The performance of 669 pupils was examined in a balanced repeated measures design during exposure to 50 and 70dB sound sources. A further 319 pupils were assessed on the literacy measures in both 50 and 64dB. A final study examined performance of 793 pupils at 50 and 70dB in a noise condition which mimicked speech interference.
Overall performance was poorer in the 70dB condition, pupils read more quickly and answered fewer questions correctly. However, for some tasks there was a significant interaction with first testing condition, indicating that pupils who performed the task first in the quieter condition were less affected by the 70dB noise condition. There was a significant difference in speed of reading and accurate responses to comprehension questions for the 50 and 64dB conditions, with worse performance in the 64dB condition.

The principle investigators are Professor Bridget Shield (London South Bank University, Acoustics), Professor Julie Dockrell (Institute of Education, Psychology) and Professor Trevor Cox (University of Salford, Acoustics). The research assistants are Dr Daniel Connolly (Institute of Education, Psychology) and Robert Conetta (London South Bank University, Acoustics). The technician is Charlie Mydlarz (University of Salford, Acoustics).