acoustics in open plan classrooms

Is This The Demise of Open Plan Teaching?

  • Open plan classrooms have been considered the new way of learning for many new-build schools in the last decade
  • Four or more classes can take place at one time in the open plan classroom
  • Open plan classrooms are considered “less authoritarian” and more “homelike” to encourage team work and social skills
  • 10 years on, several schools in Kent contracted JBH Refurbishment to divide the open plan areas with acoustic partitioning to create traditional enclosed classrooms and address high noise levels
  • High noise levels can have a negative effect on pupil learning and behaviour
  • Teachers struggle to be heard in open plan spaces

Traditional Enclosed Classrooms Making a Comeback

The acoustics of modern open plan classrooms and congregational areas are proving problematic for schools in Kent. So much so, the traditional enclosed classroom is making a comeback.

Kent based interior fit out company, JBH Refurbishments has worked with schools for many years to develop the ideal classroom environment. However, this summer the company has realised a notable trend in relatively new-build schools dividing these open planned spaces – that were intended to enhance the learning environment – into smaller classrooms.

Development and Refurbishment of Schools

Since 2015 the government invested heavily in the development and refurbishment of schools. Earlier this year a further £2.4 billion was pledged towards building and updating school property in the UK.  This investment into the construction of new schools, extensions and refurbishment work on older buildings is intended to accommodate an additional 600,000 extra school places by 2021.

While all this new construction should enhance the teaching environment, there appears to have been a major oversight in the design and layout of many new-build schools. When they were built, there was the opportunity to alter the traditional school layout to enhance the classroom environment and modernise teaching. Corridors, classrooms and congregational areas were supersized to enhance the traffic of an increasing pupil population.

These large spaces can accommodate vast numbers passing from one area to another, but they are also intended to house more than one class at one time to create a less authoritarian style of teaching. On paper, the open plan classroom environment should encourage group work and social development. Teachers are meant to benefit from sharing skills, ideas and experiences, so that teaching becomes more of a team effort.

However, in reality this style of teaching and learning seems to be proving problematic for schools across the Kent region. In fact, JBH Refurbishments has recognised a notable trend of newly built academies, secondary schools and grammar schools in Kent that want to partition these open plan spaces.

Open Plan Classrooms Cause Acoustic Reverberations

Predominantly, these alterations and the move away from open plan classrooms are being made due to acoustic reverberations. Grant Miller, Project Manager for JBH Refurbishments, explains, “When some of these new-build schools were developed the open plan spaces had sound panels in the ceiling installed to absorb the reverberation. Other schools however, ran out of budget for such commodities. Regardless, these sound panels only reduced reverberations between 2-6 RdB. This is the equivalent sound of a rustle of leaves. When the average class creates up to 60-70 RdB, this was nowhere near enough.

“In a school, the standard wall should provide 45 RdB sound absorption, which is comparable to a quiet office. This is still not quite enough for a typical classroom, although, it is a lot better than an open plan classroom, where noise travels and reverberations can be incredibly distracting.

“Ultimately, to maximise the sound absorption in schools, these open plan spaces should be divided to create traditional individual classrooms. We applied this method in a number of schools across Kent this summer, each with the same problem – too much space and too much noise.

“To address the reverberation issues in these Kent schools, we partitioned sections of the open plan space with specialist acoustic walls that absorb up to 48 RdB. When coupled with acoustic sound panels, the sound absorption in a classroom can be enhanced even further – to 51RdB. The sound panels would dramatically reduce reverberation to provide a clear and crisp sound.

“In some areas, we were asked to install glazed partitioning to maintain the impression of an open plan space. Again, we needed to use materials with acoustic properties, so we installed 12mm thick glass that could absorb the sound level by 38 RdB,” concluded Miller.

Global Issue

It’s not just Kent where the problems with open plan classrooms seem to occur, it appears to be a globalised issue. In a study in New Zealand, the acoustics in the open plan environment were deemed too loud and disruptive to learning.

For young children, the high noise levels adversely affected speech perception, cognition, concentration and psychoeducational and psychosocial achievements. Children with hearing impairments, or that had English as their second language were even more affected by the poor acoustics.

The study revealed that the reverberations also affected teachers. While only 5% of the general population suffer with voice fatigue, it is experienced by 80% of teachers, causing vocal abuse and pathological voice conditions. Furthermore, high noise levels increase stress and caused high blood pressure, resulting in headaches and fatigue. The study explains that teachers in classrooms with poor acoustics are more likely to have sick days off work and believe their job contributes to voice and throat problems.

For the schools in Kent that have had partitioning work carried out by JBH Refurbishments, it is too soon to access how the enclosed spaces will affect pupil development and teaching. What JBH Refurbishments has discovered is the open plan classroom is clearly becoming a thing of the past, rather than the future. In its place, the traditional enclosed classroom is making a BIG come back!

Contact JBH Refurbishments on on 0333 207 0339 or via out contact form to find out how we can help with your school refurbishment.

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