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…


Catch 22 as NDCS challenges Government officials on acoustics

Attended a meeting at the Department for Children, Schools and Families today about acoustics. It went well… but no major breakthrough… Yet.

Some small steps are being made which bring us closer to testing acoustics in all new schools. But nothing is yet on the table that would guarantee that all schools would definitely be tested. The Department is suggesting there is no evidence that schools are failing to deliver good acoustics. This isn’t borne out by what our members are telling us. It’s also puts us in a catch-22 because if there is no testing, it is much harder to get evidence of non-compliance. And now the Department is saying it can’t introduce testing if there is no evidence of non-compliance. My head hurts from thinking about it.

There was a suggestion from round the table that it didn’t matter if the acoustics weren’t great because deaf children could use personal microphone systems. After 11 years of using microphones in schools myself, I feel confident in saying this is baloney. Microphones amplify all noises, not just the teacher’s voice. They make group work difficult. And not all deaf children use microphones anyway. It’s not to say they’re not important – but clearly they complement good acoustics. They’re not a solution to bad acoustics.

One thing that was clear from the meeting that all the letters that our supporters are writing is getting their attention and they have to spend a lot of time explaining what is going on to MPs. The more people that write in, the more it’s going to push the Government to making sure that deaf children get high quality acoustics in schools – so write in now if you haven’t already!

The Department is going to go away and think about what we’ve said, and there is a plan to meet again in around a month. In the meantime, the campaign for schools that sound good goes on!

Taking action on acoustics after government disasppointment

So did we get a quadruple chocolate cookie cake? Nope. After dropping a big hint that it would, the Government didn’t even come to the party with a sponge cake. Government officials have now indicated that our main ask for our Sounds good? campaign of pre-completion acoustic testing is not going to be taken forward by a current review of acoustic standards. And the word is that there won’t be another review for five more years.

This is really disappointing. Especially since nearly everyone round the table supports this and despite all the evidence that it’s needed. And doubly disappointing given all the positive signals that were being given. Expectatations have been raised – and dashed.

But we are not giving up! Indications we have is that the stumbling block is the Department for Communities and Local Government who are co-responsible for building standards. As a result, our campaign is shifting its focus slightly and we have a new campaign target. We have a meeting with a Minister at the Department, Iain Wright, soon to take this up.

And now we’re also calling on the big guns to help drive our campaign forward. We’ve launched a new campaign action to ask our members/supporters to write to their MP. If lots of MPs support our call for pre-completion acoustic testing, the hope is that resistance from Communities and Local Government will fall by the wayside.

So we need everyone’s help. Our website makes it quick and easy for you to contact your MP. You don’t need to know who he/she is. And you don’t have to write the message – we prepare a draft message for you. You just have to put in your details and click send. So if you’ve got a spare five minutes, please click here and support the campaign.

I’ll be doing regular updates on how many people have contacted their MP and what impact this is having.

Sounds good? An update on the acoustics campaign

So we’ve got a name for our campaign on acoustics – Sounds Good? – what else have we been up to? Here’s a brief run down:

1) My boss attended a conference in Manchester on building schools which apparently turned out to be a great networking opportunity with various local authority officials, designers and builders. Worryingly, my boss met quite a few builders who said that opt out from the Government standards on acoustics are widespread.

2) We managed to get the story covered in leading education newspaper the Times Educational Supplement.

3) We submitted a response to a limited Government review on the standards for schools that builders are *supposed* to be following.

4) We had a meeting with officials at the Department for Children, Schools and Families to talk about the scope for taking action on acoustics. The meeting was reasonably positive – but Ministers would need to get involved to push things forward.

5) And on that note, we have formally written to the Minister responsible for new school buildings, Jim Knight (the one that does all the typos), to set out our concerns and ask for a meeting. We’re hoping he’ll agree.

The more research we do, the more we get more worried about what is actually happening on the ground. For example, we’re getting a lot of feedback that school builders and educationalists are going gung-ho for open plan teaching areas – even though there has been no real consideration of how to ensure high quality acoustics in such settings.

A case of new policy ideas being pushed forward without a consideration of how the needs of children with special educational needs can be met? I feel a sense of deja-vu…

Our campaign is now moving to developing the logistics of our plans to engage with the media some more and with MPs. We have a few interesting ideas that we’ll be following up – so, as always, watch this space.

Telling the Government about acoustics and deaf children

Things are moving quickly in our campaign work around acoustics. Last week, NDCS did two things to hammer home to the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) that this is a big issue for us.

Firstly, we managed to get acoustics mentioned in a meeting by an influential bunch of MPs. The Children, Schools and Families Select Committee is a bunch of backbencher MPs whose job it is to scrutinise the work of DCSF and generally make a fuss when DCSF mess things up. Last Wednesday, the Committee was taking a look at how the Government is getting on with its pledge to build lots of new secondary schools (known as Building Schools for the Future) and had brought various experts and a DCSF Minister along to fire some questions at them.

We’ve spent the last few months meeting with various MPs on the Select Committee to talk about our campaign work. When we found out about this particular Select Committee meeting, we sent them a briefing note on our concerns – like the fact there’s no requirement to test a new school building for its acoustics after it’s been built or that Government standards on acoustics are less stringent about the requirements for open plan teaching spaces in classrooms. So we were really pleased when two MPs – John Heppell and Graham Stuart – flagged up our concerns and helped up put acoustics on the agenda.

Secondly, I mentioned before how DCSF are doing a limited review of the Government standard on acoustics. On Friday, we sent in our response to it, setting out our concerns in detail for the first time to the Government.

These are positive moves – but still just first steps only. Our next steps: 1) think about more ways in which to get people’s attention about acoustics and get it on the agenda and 2) meet with officials at DCSF to find out what their response to our asks on acoustics are. So keep watching this space.

You can read NDCS’s briefing to the Select Committee and our response to the review by going to NDCS’s news story on this. Great to have your thoughts and suggestions so let us know what you think.

Acoustics in schools: Building Bulletin 93

Sometimes campaigning is as simple as just asking…

For the past few months we’ve been thinking about a possible campaign on acoustics in schools, highlighting that deaf children need to be able to listen if they are able to learn in the classroom effectively. Just before Christmas we had a meeting with two professors in acoustics, which was very illuminating and incredibly helpful. In particular, they informed us about a limited and internal review underway on the standard for acoustics in newly built schools, known as Building Bulletin 93.

Given some of our emerging concerns about acoustics, we obviously didn’t want the review to pass by without having a chance to comment and an opportunity to raise some key questions. So we asked the Department for Children, Schools and Families if we could be involved on the panel.

Cynic, that I am, I expected that there would only be room on the panel for experts in acoustics and buildings. Instead, we got a very quick reply saying yes.

Wow. If only that happened all the time.

I’ve spent much of today drafting a reply to the review and I’ll be blogging soon about some of our specific concerns and our developing work on acoustics. Watch this space.

PS If you know of any examples of poor acoustics in schools, let us know and we’ll use it in our campaign work.

Classroom acoustics for deaf children

One of the key issues for NDCS as part of our campaign to close the gap in educational achievement between deaf children and their hearing peers is the extent to which acoustics in the classroom acts as a barrier to learning.

It’s quite simple really. If most deaf children are now taught in mainstream schools, it is extra important that acoustics in the classroom are of a high a quality as possible to enable deaf children to listen and learn effectively.

Sadly, NDCS comes across a lot of anecdotal evidence that acoustics in new built schools are not good enough. Common problems cited include massive open plan classrooms, high ceilings and poor sound insulation. In addition, the tendency towards big shiny glass buildings can also have the unintended side effect of making it harder for deaf children to lipread.

We’re going to be taking a closer look at this issue. We’re keen to understand whether the existing standards – known as Building Bulletin 93 – are good enough for deaf children. And, if so, are they being applied correctly by builders?

This is all in the context of a massive school rebuilding programme in England of both secondary schools and primary schools. It would be a massive wasted opportunity if these new schools were not built with the best possibe acoustics. And it would not just benefit deaf children – but all children and teachers too.

If you know of any examples of schools in the UK that have poor acoustics and in which deaf children find it difficult to learn, do let us know. It will really help us with our campaigns.

And if you work in a school and are concerned about the acoustics in it, take a look at the NDCS publication – the Acoustics Toolkit.