New report shows that European schools neglect their sound environment

A new report finds that far too many European schools neglect their sound environment. Noise harms children’s learning and health and creates inequalities for students with special needs. More schools should regularly measure noise levels and design according to acoustic standards and recommendations in order to provide optimal learning environments, that have the added benefit of being inclusive.  

“Good acoustics are critical to learning for young children”, the World Health Organization writes in their 2021 World Report on Hearing. The science on this matter is extensive, but politicians, school administrators and those who design schools have been slow to address the noise issue.

Part of the problem is that it has not been made clear how widespread poor acoustics and noise are in European schools. A new report launched on International Noise Awareness Day 2022, a day to raise awareness of the harmful effects of noise on hearing, health and quality of life, finds that one third of students in OECD countries say there is noise and disorder in most or every lesson.

The reasons behind the noise problem become clearer when headmasters are asked about the physical state of their schools in the latest OECD PISA survey. According to the headmasters, one third of students in OECD countries also go to schools where instruction is hindered by poor-quality physical infrastructure, including a lack of acoustic treatments.

In our new report, middle and high school students in three European countries were surveyed to explore the extent and impact of school noise. Over 80 percent of students in all three countries say that school noise is often or sometimes problematic. Students testify to the large impact this has on health, wellbeing, and learning:

  • Headaches: About half of surveyed students say that noise sometimes causes headaches
  • Stress: About half of surveyed students say they are stressed by noise at least once a week
  • Learning losses: More than half of students say that noise makes it hard to learn at least once per week
  • Skipped lunches: More than one out of four students cut their lunch short at least once a week due to noise

A bad sound environment in school disproportionally harms children with special educational needs, such as hearing impairments, ADHD, and autism. Many of these children go to “mainstream schools” – facilities that tend to be designed according to “mainstream needs” at best. Special needs students do not get equal opportunities for learning in these, non-inclusively designed, schools.

Noise also impacts teachers’ health and work environment. The average sound level in classrooms with no acoustic treatment is 64 dB. Teachers must shout as loud as a power drill (80-85 dB) to be heard during these lessons.

No teacher should have to compromise between their health and their ability to teach. But in practice, teachers in noisy schools must choose between their vocal health and being heard. One study showed that 65 percent of teachers face vocal health issues during their career.

Most European countries have successfully addressed learning losses caused by school closures during the pandemic. We urge school decision makers to use this momentum to fix an issue that caused learning losses long before the pandemic: a poor sound environment.

  • Policymakers: Introduce mandatory acoustic controls for schools, ensuring that healthy acoustic standards are met.
  • School leadership: Create a healthier work environment for teachers and students. Cooperate with indoor environment experts to assess and address the noise in your school.
  • Architects and acousticians: Use Universal Design for Learning as a guideline when designing the physical environment. When possible, use acoustic standards and recommendations that are optimised for children with hearing impairments. This helps all students.

It is clear from this report that far too many European schools neglect their sound environment. Many barriers to learning lie in the design of the environment, not with the child. By improving the school’s acoustic environment, we build back healthier and more inclusive schools. That would be a sound recovery for schools.

To read the report, click here.



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