Acoustic Design for SEN Schools

Pupils with special educational needs require “good” acoustics. What is “good” depends on the specific person and with regard to SEND, the specific needs of the cohort, given it can cover anything from those with physical disabilities to those that have severe difficulties in managing their emotions and behaviour.

Building Bulletin 39 provides acoustic requirements for different room types and includes more onerous criteria for “teaching spaces specifically for pupils with hearing and communication needs”. With SEND covering a huge spectrum of disorders, it could be argued that applying this most onerous criteria is the best way of providing “good” acoustics for all. However, this does not consider:

(1) whether this is actually necessary;


(2) whether the impact of the required acoustic treatment is acceptable in the balance required of good design. From the perspective of an acoustic consultant, it is point 1 that is most important in acoustic design although, as part of a wider design team, point 2 cannot be ignored.


BB102 (now replaced by BB104 but still relevant for reference) states:

“Many children with SEN and disabilities have a particular reliance on good room acoustics and sound insulation – between rooms and from outside noise – for their access to learning. Poor acoustic conditions, such as noise distraction and high ambient noise levels, are particularly unacceptable where there are children with sensory impairments and/or communication difficulties (for example in a designated unit or special school). However, it is worth noting that special schools generally have lower occupancy and background noise than mainstream schools. 

Rooms with long reverberation times, with surfaces that are acoustically highly reflective (i.e. those with large volumes and hard dense surfaces), are particularly unsuitable for many types of children’s needs – some children with autism, for example, would find the room distressing. Children with a hearing impairment can also find the noise painful because it is amplified by their hearing aids. 

NB Acoustic calculations for all learning and teaching spaces are now required to demonstrate compliance with Part F [sic] of the Building Regulations. 

Many special schools have children with hearing impairment or sensitive hearing. In these cases, specialist advice will be needed from acousticians, audiologists specialising in hearing impairment, teachers of the deaf, and/or other specialists. Specialist provision may include personal hearing aids and radio aids in conjunction with induction loops and sound-field systems as described in Table 6.2 of Building Bulletin 9314

Where a special school is co-located with a mainstream school, the acoustic performance of shared spaces in the mainstream school must also be considered to ensure effective inclusion. 

Specialist advice can be obtained from: 


Footnote 14 states:

“The standards in BB93 Acoustic Design of Schools – recommend good quality acoustics for a general learning environment. 

Where there are specialist areas for children with hearing impairment, refer to Section 6 of Building Bulletin 93, which addresses the particular needs of children with hearing impairments. 

The case studies in Section 7 of Building Bulletin 93 include examples of specialist provision for deaf and hearing impaired children. Appendix 8 – specifications for sound-field systems – includes requirements for loudspeakers, microphones and sound amplification.”


BB102 states that poor acoustics and high noise levels are likely to adversely affect SEN pupils. However, in the footnote, BB93 states that it provides criteria for ‘good quality acoustics’. For many spaces within a school, achieving the general criteria of BB93 would avoid the poor conditions which would adversely affect pupils. However, there will be some areas within a school which are specifically for hearing and communication needs, such as speech therapy rooms, and these would require the more onerous criteria.

To achieve the hearing and communication needs criteria would normally require a room with a low floor to soffit height to minimise room volume, a ceiling grid with mineral fibre above to provide additional low frequency absorption, carpet to reduce areas of reflective surfaces, and wall panels to provide additional sound absorption. Some or all of these can conflict with other design elements such as daylighting, exposed soffits for thermal mass, floor finishes for maintenance and wall area for FF&E.

In the many SEND projects we have worked on, the acoustic requirements are determined through design development and discussion with the end user to determine appropriate acoustic. Different schools had different requirements. For example, at one school, the Head’s main concern was mechanical noise as they were aware that this type of noise could be particularly distracting and disturbing to children with Autism. In another there was a desire to not have doors on calming rooms which meant there was no acoustic separation.


Whilst BB93 does not specifically address SEND schools, section 0.4.1. addressed Special school accommodation and special units attached to mainstream schools and the final paragraphs state:

“The acoustic criteria for these types of accommodation should be signed off by the school client body in the same way as alternative performance standards (APS) as the particular needs of the pupils and the activities they take part in may vary widely from one school to another and within the same school.  

The figures for rooms intended specifically for pupils with special hearing or communication needs in mainstream accommodation given in the tables in section 1 are a starting point and may not be suitable for the particular needs of the children in some types of accommodation.” 


Good acoustics are required in SEND schools. What defines “good” is dependent on the type of school, the type of pupil attending and the schools ethos and approach. Given there is such a wide range of pupil needs that fall under the banner of SEND, there is no catch all acoustic criteria for SEND schools. It is essential that acoustics are considered on a project specific level, utilising the expertise not just of acousticians and architects but also that of the users and education specialists that use them.