Improved acoustics = Improved attainment
The modern classroom puts greater emphasis on group communication and collaboration which often increases the overall noise level. When the sound environment provides the best possible support for students and teachers, it will increase comfort, focus and the quality of teaching and learning. Much ongoing research is also pointing at increased memory and academic attainment.
Regulations governing acoustics in independent schools
It has come as something of a surprise to some within the independent sector that there are regulations setting out the minimum requirements for acoustics in schools. These are not guidelines or suggestions, but regulations that apply to both new builds and refurbishments.
What you need to know
Over the years, the Department for Education has issued a number of Building Bulletins on school design, covering aspects as diverse as lighting, disabled access, fume cupboards and environmental assessment.
Acoustic conditions in schools are now regulated through Independent School Standards, Building Regulations, School Premises Regulations, and the Equality Act. Since 2003, the numerical standards and guidance used to determine compliance with these regulations are set out in DfE Building Bulletin 93 “Acoustic Design of Schools” re-issued in February 2015.
Requirement E4 from the Building Regulations states:
“Each room or other space in a school building shall be designed and constructed in such a way that it has the acoustic conditions and the insulation against disturbance by noise appropriate to its intended use.”
Approved Document E in support of the Building Regulations states:
“In the Secretary of State’s view the normal way of satisfying Requirement E4 will be to meet the values for sound insulation, reverberation time and internal ambient noise which are given in Section 1 of Building Bulletin 93”.
We asked Adrian James, one of the BB93 authors, to summarise the current obligations placed on the School Client Body.
“The Independent School Standards (ISS’s) 2014 are to independent schools what the School Premises Regulations (SPR’s) are to state schools,” he said. “Since 2014 the ISSs and SPRs have been brought into alignment so that, broadly, the same requirements apply in both state and independent sectors.
“The School Client Body is responsible for ensuring compliance with the Regulations; they consist of both the Commissioning Authority (normally the company, trust or charity which owns the school buildings) and the School Entity, which is the body having day-to-day control of the School and may be represented by the Head teacher or Governors.”
The ISSs contain a similar statement to that in Requirement E4 of the Building Regulations:
“The acoustic conditions and sound insulation of each room or other space must be suitable, having regard to the nature of the activities which normally take place therein.”
There is a helpful clarification of what is meant by the term “suitable” and what is meant by ‘special requirements’:
“Any requirement that anything provided under these Regulations must be “suitable” means that it must be suitable for the pupils in respect of whom it is provided, having regard to their ages, numbers and sex and any special requirements they may have.”
“A pupil has “special requirements” if the pupil has any needs arising from physical, medical, sensory, learning, emotional or behavioural difficulties which require provision which is additional to or different from that generally required by children of the same age in schools other than special schools.”
In addition to the design and construction standards covered by the Building Regulations, Independent School Standards cover the performance in use of schools. This means that operational noise levels (including noise from equipment such as whiteboard projectors and computers) in teaching and learning spaces must be suitable for the activities taking place. In addition, the ISSs require any open-plan teaching and learning spaces in new and refurbished schools to provide adequate speech intelligibility as measured by the speech transmission index (STI).
Adrian has kindly offered schools the opportunity to contact him to discuss the standards further.
Regulatory requirements summarised
All schools have to meet certain minimum standards for acoustics. These standards are not optional, and they exist for a good reason. These acoustic standards have to be suitable for the activity in each space, so that a language teaching room will typically require better acoustics than a workshop
The performance requirement for indoor sports halls up to 280m2 remains at ≤ 1.5 seconds reverberation time (RT), but above this size the limit is relaxed. Above a floor area of 530m2 the limit is ≤ 2.0 secs RT, and between these floor areas there is a sliding scale of reverberation time proportional to floor area.
The optimal solution is vertical impact resistant wall panels on two non-opposing walls below 75% of the floor to ceiling height.
Open plan teaching
Speech intelligibility in open plan areas is removed from the Building Regulations, but included in the Independent Schools Act. An STi model / measurement is required to demonstrate that acoustically, the space will work.
Noise from equipment is now considered.
Performance standards have now been introduced for refurbished buildings.
Special Educational Needs
This previous category for students with a hearing impairment described as: Teaching space intended specifically for students with special hearing and communication needs now also includes:
- Sight impairment
Derogation now Alternative Performance Standards
There was previously no guidance on how far Alternative Performance Standards (APS) could deviate from the standards in BB93. The limit for APS is now set at the performance levels for refurbished buildings, and be fully justified and documented
A performance standard for rain noise is now included.
Very few schools in the independent sector currently comply with these requirements. However, as independent schools undertake refurbishments, extensions and new buildings BB93 will become a more recognised focus of the design.
There is a real incentive to improve acoustics in teaching spaces, because better acoustics mean better communication and reduced stress for both staff and students, leading to better academic results.
It is also worth bearing in mind that these are minimum standards. The acoustics of the learning environment should be based on how people experience sound and the way it affects them, not just on meeting minimum formal standards.
For further information on the standards contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
For further information on acoustic products & solutions contact: email@example.com