Sweyne Park School: where you can hear yourself think

I’ve just got back from a fascinating visit to Sweyne Park school in Essex. It’s a school with a large unit for mostly profoundly deaf children and which has been at the centre of some ground-breaking research into acoustics in schools.

The history is that the local authority was finding that too many parents of deaf children were citing poor acoustics as a reason for demanding the local authority for their children to be educated elsewhere. So Sweyne Park took part in a scientific experiment where individual classrooms where either given superior acoustics, or just met the government’s standards or were left untreated as a control group, with a view to improving acoustics over the longer-term.

While we wait for the research to be published, we decided to go and see and hear the classrooms for ourselves. It was a revelation. The classroom with acoustics that go beyond what the Government requires was incredibly quiet and calm – even though there were several one to one discussions going on in the classroom. It was as if background noise and babble was being sucked out of the room. I could almost literally hear myself think.

The classroom that just meets government standards was just about OK but the children’s voices were more audibly lingering around the classroom.

The ‘control’ classroom was very noisy. When I entered, I felt like I was enveloped by a wave of sound. Group discussions were going on and the children were talking louder and louder over each other to be heard. A communication support worker told me he found it more difficult to support deaf children in such classrooms.

The teachers had nothing but positive feedback about the new classrooms – that they didn’t have to shout anymore to strain their voices and that it was easier to manage the classroom. It was strange for me, but I personally felt myself tensing up just going into the noisy classroom whilst I felt quite relaxed and calm in the first classroom.

Our campaign position up to now has been that focused on getting the Government to make sure that all new classrooms met the existing standards. Having visited this school, I’m now wondering if we need to start arguing more for the standards to be upwardly revised…


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