When it comes to education, the performance of students – whatever their age – is a hotly-debated topic among both parents and teachers, and forms the basis of many of our schools’ rules. Good time-keeping, having a hearty breakfast, and the switching off of mobile phones during lesson time are all measures that are put into place to ensure that students are able to keep the focus they need throughout the day to perform to the very best of their ability…and let’s not forget the often-debated topics of whether what they wear, or how they style or colour their hair has an effect. What often isn’t discussed, however, and definitely should be, is how the quality of the air that our children and their peers are breathing in while in the classroom can be one of the biggest factors in how they are performing.
Studies have shown that a whopping 3.4 million children in the UK are at serious risk of infectious diseases and long-term health problems, due entirely to poor ventilated learning spaces, with a report by Harvard University claiming that the cognitive performance of students studying in ‘green spaces’ is 60% higher than those who aren’t. This means that more than a quarter of schools in the UK, from nurseries to sixth-form colleges, have levels of small particle pollution that exceeds the World Health Organisation limit, and these particles, known as PM2.5, can not only harm children’s lungs, but also pass into the bloodstream and other parts of the body – including the brain through the olfactory nerve in the nose, damaging vulnerable, developing young bodies.
It’s clear that poor air quality in schools, colleges and universities has a huge impact on students’ health and performance, adversely affecting the futures of our children. And it should not be ignored.
When CO2 levels in indoor spaces reach above 1000 ppm, it has been shown to have a negative impact on cognitive function, as well as being linked to a rise in anxiety, tiredness and a lack of concentration in students, and even aggravating serious health conditions such as asthma. It’s shocking then to learn that indoor learning spaces across the UK regularly exceed these CO2 danger levels, often up to a frightening 2500 ppm, and the evidence shows that test scores are noticeably and significantly worse in rooms with these higher levels when compared to those with 1000 ppm or less. Interestingly, 90% of teachers surveyed said that they believed poor air quality was affecting their students’ concentration, and 60% said they had noticed a worsening of students’ asthma symptoms. It’s no wonder then that students often report feeling drowsy, unfocused and unproductive during the school day, not to mention finding that existing health conditions are exacerbated.
Poor air quality in schools has also been linked to the mental well-being of students, with 56% of teachers surveyed claiming that it was causing antisocial and irritable behaviour in their pupils, and that performance and grades are suffering as a result. With such a huge proportion of the nation’s schools being affected, it’s interesting to note that the majority of the poor indoor air quality reports are linked to urban classrooms rather than those in rural areas. 96% of teachers in London schools and 71% of those in the North-East said that they believed poor indoor air quality has a negative effect on the health of both students and teachers…although the general consensus across the board is that air quality in schools is below standard, with only teachers surveyed in Wales believing that classroom air quality was above standard.
Thankfully, these findings haven’t been ignored, with a government initiative finally being introduced to monitor CO2 levels in schools. While this is certainly a step forward in the right direction, it does beg the question of whether or not it’s too little, too late. Parents place a lot of trust and faith into the school system, sending children as young as four into school buildings around the country, at a delicate age where their immune systems are still in the development stage, and potentially exposing them to serious illness. Unclean air has been linked to an increase in obesity and mental disorders in children, as well as ADHD, and, rather worryingly, an increase in asthma. Asthma is a common condition among children, with 1 in 11 kids in the UK suffering to some degree, and with poor indoor air quality contributing to a massive 13.8 million missed school days…and then there are allergies to consider. 40% of children in the UK have been diagnosed with an allergy, and when indoor air quality is compromised, symptoms such as sore eyes, itchy skin and sore throats can present themselves with a vengeance. Even for those who haven’t been formerly diagnosed with an allergy, poor air quality can cause what is known as Sick Building Syndrome, a condition that can cause all of the aforementioned symptoms in addition to headaches and tiredness, and is reportedly on the rise in schools, causing preventable student and teacher absences.
The effects that a students’ absence from school can have on both their short-term and long-term learningperformance are obvious, but a child’s learning can be just as affected by the absence of their teachers, with their routine being disrupted by the introduction of substitute teachers who aren’t as familiar with the children’s individual needs.
Improved air quality in indoor learning spaces would inevitably lead to a huge reduction in the number of sick days taken by both children and staff, with the knock-on effect being an increase in student performance. Better air quality has shown a 58% improvement in the number of sick days taken, as well as faster and more accurate responses in students’ abilities to recognise and remember, and a 3% increase in maths and reading test scores.
So, what can be done to improve the indoor air quality in the nation’s schools? Monitoring the air quality is one thing, but this collected data needs to lead to practical solutions, such as installing new ventilation systems, improving existing ones, or simply opening some windows! One such technology that is on the rise in indoor spaces is UVC, which can limit the spread of airborne diseases by inactivating and preventing the growth of harmful microbes in the air. Our children spend up to six hours a day inside a classroom, five days a week, and for the most part we send them off happily, secure in the knowledge that they are well-cared for in a safe environment, with rules and regulations in place that are conducive to them learning and performing well. But perhaps it’s time to worry less about the colours that students are putting in their hair, how short they tie their ties, and whether or not they’re wearing ‘regulation’ school shoes, and more time on what we can’t see: what they’re breathing in.