How the acoustics campaign victory woz won

VictoryWell, it’s been two weeks now since we won the campaign victory on acoustics and the Government announced a package of measures to improve acoustics in new schools. So how did it all happen? Having mused and reflected upon it, here are what I think were the five key ingredients behind the campaign success:

1) Getting good media coverage. We were fortunate that the Times Educational Supplement, which is read avidly by civil servants and Ministers at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, were keen to follow the campaign throughout the year and to keep highlighting the issue with stories popping up in January on the launch of the campaign, May about support from other disability charities and, more recently, in October about a new school with poor acoustics.

2) Getting the message out to MPs and peers. We invested lots of time and effort in making MPs aware of the campaign, encouraging them to sign a parliamentary petition and to write to the Department to demand action. We couldn’t have done this without our supporters taking action and writing to their MP to check they were on board. In total, nearly 600 emails or letters were sent to MPs and the Government on acoustics by our supporters. It helped that we had a simple message that was easy for MPs to understand and get on board, all of which ensured we had a cross-party army of supporters within Parliament…

3) Making sure deaf young people led the way. Of course, one of reasons why so many MPs were keen to support the campaign is that they had attended a parliamentary event we arranged in June and met with a group of deaf young people to hear about their own personal experiences of poor acoustics, and why action is needed. The same group also appeared on the telly on BBC2 programme See Hear to demand action. They made a powerful appeal for action which was difficult for MPs and the Government to ignore.

4) Making sure we developed a strong case for action. Whether it was doing our own survey of local authorities to confirm that too many new schools were being built with poor acoustics or commissioning research from a school in Essex to show the dramatic impact that improved acoustics can have, we were keen to make sure that our briefings to Government were backed up by a compelling set of facts, pointing to a problem that needs to be solved.

5) Negotiations over a possible law change. Having got lots of attention from MPs and peers, several were keen to try and get the law changed to improve acoustics. Baroness Wilkins, a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness, tabled an amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. We were quite lucky in a way; the Government was already behind schedule on this Bill and were keen to reduce the amount of time spent on debates in the House of Lords. But a good campaign exploits any luck and opportunities that presents itself. And so we entered into a game of brinkmanship and a series of negotiations to agree to a deal whereby the Department agreed to acoustic testing in exchange for the amendment being withdrawn. We ended up getting a good package that surpassed our expectations of what we could realistically achieve.

All in all, a good result for deaf children and lots of lessons to take forward to the next big campaign! I can’t chose but any thoughts on which was the most important factor out of this five?

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Campaign victory for deaf children on acoustics!

Happy day!

After months of lobbying and weeks of nail-biting negotiations, the Government has today announced a new package of measures to improve acoustics in new schools. We’ve been calling for a new legal requirement for all new schools to be tested. What we’ve got is:

* A new contractual requirement for all secondary schools to be tested as part of the Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme.
* A new condition of funding – no more money for local authorities for new schools unless they can show that recently built schools are compliant with government standards on acoustics.
* An intention to consult on a legal requirement for all new schools to be tested in the future.

So, in practice, nearly all new schools will end up being tested. We’ve been promised a list of the small number that aren’t captured by the above – so we’ll know their names, and where they live…

Lots of follow up work to do now to spread the word… But come back soon for the insider info on how it all happened.

Why we need you to contact the England Children’s Minister

So, just to recap on NDCS’s Sounds good? campaign for better acoustics in schools in England, Baroness Wilkins has joined NDCS in calling for a change to the law on acoustics. NDCS has been calling for all new school buildings to be tested for their acoustics before they open, to ensure there are incentives in the system for everyone involved in building a new school to make sure the school doesn’t just look good, but sounds good too. After all, what is the point of spending millions on a school if it’s too noisy inside to learn? And so Baroness Wilkins has proposed a change to the law – or an “amendment” that does just that – makes acoustic testing a legal requirement.

The Government is resisting the amendment. They say the case for action is unproven, even though we’ve shown that currently lots of schools are not being tested and those that are, are failing the tests. Even though independent research shows acoustics benefit all children, not just deaf children and help teachers manage behaviour in the classroom. Even though the cost of an acoustics test is peanuts, compared to the cost of fixing rubbish acoustics. Even though over 15 diverse organisations agree that urgent action is needed. Even though after months of consideration, hardly any voices of objection have been raised by builders.

I feel like the only people who don’t want to take action is Government. It feels like things are stuck in a bureaucratic inertia by people who care more about processes than taking action that will make a real difference. We want to get the law changed now to stop the scandal of new schools being built with rubbish acoustics as I type. Not in some indeterminate future after “further investigation” and “careful consideration” where things fall into a governmental black hole and never reappear.

If you agree that urgent action is needed now, then contact the Children’s Minister for England, Baroness Morgan. She’ll be representing the Government when the amendment is debated in the House of Lords. It’s being debated on October 19th, so we need lots of people to get writing asap to show how much people want this change. We need your voices to be louder than those of the nay-sayers.

As always, our website makes it quick and easy for you to do this. Just fill in a few details about yourself and your email is off within around 3 minutes. 100 people have taken action already so you’re in good company.

If you’re still unconvinced, then watch the BBC 2 programme See Hear and listen to the deaf teenagers explain why good acoustics are so important to them. At the end of the day, it is deaf children who will benefit most from this.

So what does it sound like for a deaf child in a school with rubbish acoustics?

As a campaigns officer, we’ve used a range of tools in our attempts to cajole Government into taking action on acoustics in schools for deaf children as part of the Sounds good? campaign. Two things, in particularly, have worked particularly well…

1) Deaf children explaining the personal impact of poor acoustics in their own words. You can now see the BBC2 See Hear feature on acoustics on youtube. Some of the children’s comments are really powerful – like how poor acoustics makes them feel lonely and left out in the classroom. Recommended viewing.

2) A sound simulation of what it sounds like for deaf children when they’re in a classroom with poor acoustics. We used this to powerful effect at the parliamentary event we did back in June where a group of deaf children demonstrated the simulation to MPs. The simulation is now available on our website for everyone to listen for themselves. It is just a simulation – but it gives a powerful indication into how much harder it is for deaf children to listen and learn in the classroom. As one of my colleagues said, it’s a real “ear” opener.

The campaign is now moving into a new phase, and there’ll be new campaign action soon. Watch this space…

UPDATE! (11/9/09) We’ve just launched a new campaign action. We’re asking our supporters to contact the Children’s Minister, Baroness Morgan, to agree a change to the law on acoustics. We want to make sure all new schools get tested for their acoustics before they open. So if you want to help make sure deaf children don’t feel left out in the classrom, take action now!

End of term report on acoustics campaign

Parliament has now broken up for summer. As a campaigns officer, my initial response to this news is always “Praise be!”. As much as I love MPs, the summer months give us a time to reflect, strategise and do some blue sky thinking. Or some grey sky thinking if you’re enjoying the same weather as I am.

One thing we’ll be reflecting on is our Sounds good? campaign on acoustics. Looking back, I think we can point to some solid campaign ‘wins’, including:

* A recognition by the Government that there is a problem over poor acoustics, to which action is needed.
* A commitment to publishing guidance on how to achieve good acoustics.
* An unofficial clamp down on the use of alternative performance standards from those set out in government guidance, where there is weak justification.
* A recommendation of acoustic testing in new ‘minimum standards’ for new schools published by the Government.
* A reference to acoustic testing in new draft contracts for use by local authorities for new secondary schools.
* A promise to review the acoustics in new school buildings in future “post-occupancy evaluations”.

We’ve done this backed up my widespread support. Nearly 80 MPs have signed a parliamentary petition on this, 45 came to a parliamentary event, 16 organisations have endorsed the campaign and over 400 members of the public have contacted their MP to call for action on this issue.

All of this is pretty good. If we were to end the campaign tomorrow, I would do so with my head held reasonably high as I rush to buy some Pringles to celebrate.

But there is one very important thing missing that we think is needed: a hard mandatory requirement for new schools to be tested for their acoustics. Nothing has been put forward that would be a watertight requirement and which would apply to all new schools (and not just secondary schools). Without this, we don’t think there is any real incentive to make acoustics a top priority. It would fall off the radar as soon as we stopped our campaign.

Baroness Wilkins, a strong NDCS supporter, has been pressing to get the law changed to introduce this new requirement and her amendment will get debated after the summer. We had a meeting with civil servants last week to discuss this and we have a commitment that they will be seriously thinking about this.

In the meantime, we’ll be thinking about ways in which we can keep the campaign on the top of people’s minds when Parliament comes back from summer… Any ideas?

What does the Government think of our acoustics campaign?

So whathas the Government’s response been to our campaign on acoustics in schools?

Well, some of it is probably unprintable. I’m fairly certain that officials would wish we would just go away. Our campaign has generated a fair amount of work for them. I feel their pain as an ex-civil servant myself. But then again, it wouldn’t take much for us to go away.

The campaign is calling for a new mandatory requirement that all new school buildings be tested for their acoustics. Some of the arguments deployed by the Government to try and justify not doing this have included:

1) A government review is already strengthening guidance on acoustics. Which is very welcome. However, we’ve already been told that the review will simply strengthen the recommendation that acoustic testing should be done. It won’t make it a requirement. We have evidence that a lot of local authorities currently don’t bother to test the quality of acoustics as it is ‘only’ a recommendation. So this won’t work.

2) Most new secondary schools are now being built through a programme known as Building Schools for the Future. For these schools, it has been proposed that testing will be a ‘condition of contract’ in a draft contract that all local authorities will be expected to sign. Again, this is very welcome. But, again, there is a but. It’s essentially a draft contract. It does not guarantee that all local authorities will use it. And it would only apply to secondary schools. Lots of new primary schools are also being built at the moment. They need to have high quality acoustics too to ensure effective language development.

3) It’s been proposed that more be done to educate the educationalists. I’ve never been entirely sure what educationalists do – but I gather it’s their job to decide how schools should be run and designed. Educationalists currently seem to be in a lather about open plan teaching spaces without having really thought about how good acoustics can be made possible in such environments. Again, this is welcome. But this should be happening anyway and I don’t think it takes away the need for acoustic testing.

I think it’s quite simple really. If government standards have been set, the Government needs to make sure they’re met. And the best, and only, way to do that is to have a hard requirement for new schools to be tested for their acoustics.

It’s not particularly expensive to do. We estimate it costs around 0.01% of the cost of new secondary school.

It’s a small thing to do that would make a big difference. And it’s a sure fire means of making the campaign go away!

Big shindig at Parliament to demand action on acoustics

God, I’m glad today is over. Today, we went off to Parliament for a parliamentary event to promote our Sounds good? campaign for better acoustics in schools. The event was hosted by John Bercow MP, a respected Conservative MP, who has made it his mission to ensure that the needs of children with special educational needs are high on the political agenda.

Around 40 odd MPs turned up. It was a fantastic show of support. But it did mean that for 2 hours, I felt completely mobbed, even with a large contingent of NDCS staff on hand to help out. I’m not sure I ever want to meet a MP again.

The idea behind the event was to give MPs the opportunity to find out more about the importance of acoustics. They could do this by a) meeting some local deaf children and b) listening to a computer simulation of what a teacher’s voice in a classroom with rubbish acoustics sounds like. And they got to get their photo taken with the deaf children. The photos will be winging their way out to local media across the UK and will help us raise awareness of the campaign. We also published results of a survey of local authorities – which I’ll be blogging about soon.

Two Ministers were due to come but they got reshuffled at the last minute in the governmental game of musical chairs. Shame but the new Ministers will be hearing from us soon!

It was a great day and a culmination of a lot of campaign work to try and produce a ‘critical’ moment. Along with the survey, we hope we’ve now reached the moment where we hope that the mass of support and the case for urgent action is so compelling that the Government just gets on with it. It will be a few weeks before we can see if it’s worked.