Tips for designing acoustically optimised classrooms for special education needs


It’s a simple equation: improved acoustics = greater sense of inclusion + attainment.

An optimal sound environment is a basic necessity if all students are to learn effectively. Modern teaching practices put 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 improve comfort, focus and the quality of teaching and learning.

Acoustics is not, of course, the only factor to consider but is one of the top five. In 2015, Hawkins Brown architects, in collaboration with other industry professionals, launched The Great Schools Book, which was very well received by the education sector:

“A well-proportioned classroom which has appropriate storage, with just the right amount of display, is flooded with natural light, has good acoustics, no glare, good air quality, a comfortable temperature, sufficient space to accommodate a range of activities for the right number of students, will improve educational outcomes”, states The Great Schools Book.


The ABC of Acoustics in Building Regulations

Over the years, the Department for Education (DfE) 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 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” and re-issued in Nov 2014.

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”.

Adrian James, one of the former BB93 authors, summarises the current obligations placed on Local Authorities or the School Client Body: 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.


Classrooms and Special educational needs

Within his guidance, Adrian James also gives a helpful clarification of what is meant by the term “suitable” and what is meant by “special requirements” that is interesting when we consider the needs of those with special educational needs.

“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.”

When it comes to acoustic comfort, special hearing or communication needs may include children with the following:

  • A permanent hearing impairment
  • Fluctuating hearing impairments caused by conductive hearing loss
  • An auditory processing disorder or difficulty Speech, language and communication difficulties
  • Visual impairments
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD)
  • Being on the autistic spectrum
  • It’s also recommended that consideration is also given where English is not the child’s first language


Designing the acoustics of SEN classrooms

With these special requirements in mind, Adrian has also developed a series of steps for designing the acoustics of a SEN classroom:

  • Keep the room size down: Reverberation naturally increases with room volume, so large rooms need more acoustic treatment. Children with special needs should generally be taught in smaller classes anyway
  • Keep the ceiling height down: Things get difficult at more than about 2.8 m
  • Use only “Type A” absorptive finishes: these are the most efficient and so reduce the areas required. However, the SEN standard also controls low-frequency (bass) reverberation time so you will also need some bass absorption
  • Use dry-lined walls (if possible) as these provide some useful bass absorption at no extra cost. The new standard also lets you include the effects of furniture and fittings
  • Opt for a conventional Type A suspended ceiling tile: are they are the most efficient and provide some bass absorption, especially if you use proprietary bass pads on top of the tiles
  • Alternatively, use a baffle or raft: if for some reason you can’t have a suspended ceiling, consider suspended baffles or rafts. These are very efficient because both sides are absorptive, but they are not great at low frequencies, so you will need a lot of bass absorption from wall panels


Special Educational Needs standards within TAB classrooms

Adrian has also considered achieving SEN standard in a Teaching for Artistic Behaviour (TAB) classroom stating it’s difficult and expensive, but not impossible. In these scenarios:

  • Use walls panels: whatever the ceiling type, you will almost certainly need some acoustically absorbent wall panels as well. At least some of these should be at ear height, so they should be robust
  • Do a 3-D model: conventional sabine calculations are unreliable for this type of room. To get the design right you really need a 3-D acoustic computer model
  • Work with an expert: Use an acoustic consultant who is experienced in this type of design. Get them involved early to advise on room shapes and sizes, and make sure that they commission the completed rooms

Designing acoustics for educational spaces is no mean feat, but 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 the requirements of Building Regulations 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.

“Students with a hearing impairment don’t have the same experience as hearing students, our acoustic refurbishment work has helped equalise this. It’s only fair to try and do whatever you can.” – Simon Smith, Learning Environment Leader, Sweyne Park School (Essex Study), June 2017.