Revitalizing a Victorian-era school building through improved acoustics
The design of primary school buildings was as different from today in the late 1800s as ideas about the value of education. While legislation for the compulsory education of five to ten-year-olds ensured that children transitioned from the factory to the classroom, British Parliament simultaneously constructed thousands of primary schools across England and Wales with hardy materials and a build quality that was likely to defy major seismic activity.
Victorian-era classrooms have big, echoic rooms with high ceilings that are more akin to church-halls than classrooms in both appearance and acoustic characteristics, and the sheer sturdiness of these buildings has ensured that the poor classroom acoustics and resulting high noise levels they produce will haunt their halls for centuries unhindered – unless refurbished. As a result, sub-standard acoustic conditions have persisted in many Victorian-era classrooms up to the present day with only cursory improvements, alongside deficits in other environmental factors that we now know are essential to the process of education, such as lighting quality, adequate temperatures and CO2 levels.
We had spent time developing pupils’ attitudes to learning but we hadn’t given much thought to the physical learning environment.
Fortunately for the children of Fingeringhoe Primary School, a recent report released by Essex County Council (ECC) shows that the golden age of school renovation has come literally to their doorstep. The initial idea for the refurbishment of the school building, dating back to 1863, was born when teachers at the school began wonder how they could address a lack of motivation and disengagement they had seen among pupils, particularly amongst the older children. Suzy Ryan, Headteacher at Fingeringhoe Primary, noted that “We had spent time developing pupils’ attitudes to learning but we hadn’t given much thought to the physical learning environment.”
In recognition of the importance of the sound environment for academic outcomes and inclusivity, Ecophon was subsequently invited to take part in the refurbishment project to improve on the old-fashioned acoustic conditions alongside partners commissioned to revamp other aspects including lighting and furniture. The Headteacher spoke for all the staff when she said “We were sure this could have a positive impact, not only on pupils’ attitudes to learning, but also for pupils with more complex needs.”
Pupils are now starting to understand how environmental factors can affect their learning: they seem to be more aware of when they are focused and when they are not and the factors that may contribute to this.
After installation, Ecophon’s sound-absorbent solutions led to measurable improvements in indoor acoustic qualities that improved speech intelligibility and lowered background noise levels in the classrooms, making an environment that was more conducive to learning and contemporary pedagogical approaches. Students views were also taken into account during the refurbishing process, giving them a sense of agency but also educating them about the influence of their surroundings on them, which in turn gives them more control over their own education. The Headteacher noted that “Pupils are now starting to understand how environmental factors can affect their learning: they seem to be more aware of when they are focused and when they are not and the factors that may contribute to this.”
This refurbishment is part of a trend in which an awareness of the importance of the classroom environment is on the rise among key actors in the education sector, exemplified in many recent case studies as well as the development of new approaches to classroom design such as those exemplified by Innovative Learning Environments.
The staff of Fingeringhoe Primary are particularly exemplary of this increased attention, having now glimpsed the sort of competitive advantage optimizing the classroom environment gives schools in striving to engage students’ attention and interest at the highest possible level.
“Our awareness of different factors that affect learning has increased", confirmed the school’s Deputy Headteacher Hayley Rollings. "We are starting to have a better understanding.”
Author: Douglas MacCutcheon