By Kiran Sagoo on Fri 18 November 2022
The Air Quality in UK Classrooms Report
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When we discuss the hot topic of air quality, we’re referring to the level of pollution in the air we breathe. Pollutants in the air can pose serious health risks, on a par with cancer, heart disease and obesity.
Many causes of air pollution, such as vehicle emissions and industrial fumes, are more apparent outdoors, but air quality indoors can be equally poor – as highlighted by this report.
It can be a particularly acute problem in enclosed spaces like classrooms, with children being more vulnerable to the effects of pollution. According to the charity Global Action Plan, ‘over 3.4 million UK children are learning in an unhealthy environment’.
At Airflow, we provide air movement and ventilation solutions – and we understand the air we breathe directly affects us. We’ve conducted a survey of teachers from 133 schools to discover what their classroom working conditions are, whether the air quality in UK schools is adequate for staff and students, and how schools can improve.
- 72% of teachers say the air quality in their school is below standard
- 90% of teachers think air quality impacts students’ or teachers' health, behaviour or ability to work
- 77% of teachers believe poor air quality affects student's concentration
- 71% of teachers want air filtration or purification systems installed
- Over a quarter of teachers said their school is trying to improve air quality, but cannot due to a lack of funding or government support
- 60% of teachers noticed a connection between schools’ poor air quality and worsening asthma/other lung conditions
- 74% of Greater London teachers say air quality in classrooms is ‘below standard’
- 61% of teachers in London said poor classroom air quality was making asthma/other lung conditions worse in children – double the number in the North East (29%)
What’s the effect on pupils?
An overwhelming majority of 90% of teachers believe air quality has a negative impact on students’ or teachers' health, behaviour or ability to work.
As well as aggravating asthma and other lung conditions, our report found that poor air quality or ventilation is also detrimental to the mental wellbeing of students. More than three-quarters (77%) said it can affect students' ability to concentrate in class, while over half (56%) said it can cause antisocial or irritable behaviour amongst students.
In schools where teachers identified the air quality to be ‘below standard’, over half (53%) said performance and grades suffered as a result.
What’s the effect on teachers?
It’s also vital to consider how poor air quality impacts teachers. After all, it’s their place of work, where they’re expected to care for and educate children to the highest standards.
Yet their working environment is far from ideal. More than half (59%) of the teachers surveyed said poor air quality can make their working environment unfit for purpose (for teachers or pupils). Almost two-thirds (63%) recognised that poor air quality has physical and mental consequences for teachers.
In schools where air quality was ‘below standard’, almost a quarter (23%) of teachers fear that the issue increases the risk of school closure, raising the prospect of job losses.
Dangers to student and teacher health
Spending all day with children, teachers gain real insight into their health. Three in five teachers said poor air quality or ventilation can impact or had impacted children’s health, exacerbating asthma and other lung conditions for some students. The tragic case of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah highlighted the health risks children face when regularly exposed to high levels of air pollution.
According to our survey, the impact of air quality on lung health/asthma is much more significant in urban classrooms than in rural ones: ill-effects were 55% more likely in cities, where both industrial and road pollution are more prevalent.
Almost a third (29%) of teachers from our survey work in classrooms with no air conditioning/other ventilation, giving them no options to try and improve the quality of the air their pupils breathe.
How do perspectives vary across the country?
The general consensus is that air quality is below standard: Wales was the only place where the majority of teachers thought their classroom air quality/ventilation was above standard.
In London, almost all teachers (96%) believe that poor air quality has a negative impact on students’ or teachers' health, behaviour and ability to work. Even in the North East – the area least likely to support this view – almost three-quarters (71%) of teachers still agreed with the statement.
More than three in five London teachers say that poor air quality makes the classroom working environment unfit for purpose, affecting students’ ability to concentrate, and leading to antisocial or irritable behaviour. Ultimately, this is impacting performance and grades of students in the capital: 48% of teachers say poor classroom air quality reduces performance and grades.
Well over half (61%) of London-based teachers believe their health – and that of pupils – is being put at risk by poor air quality aggravating asthma and other lung conditions. Just half the amount (29%) of teachers in the North East hold this view.
Some 61% of teachers also say that poor air quality in classrooms is impacting their physical or mental health, which could lead some to leave the profession – at a time when 25,000 fewer teachers have been recruited than in 2021.
Slightly more teachers at rural schools (79%) than at urban schools (74%) believe their school’s air quality is below standard. Although urban schools are exposed to more air pollution, perhaps they are investing more in air purification or air conditioning systems to counteract their proximity to major sources of pollution.
Are schools doing enough?
Almost a third (31%) of teachers have requested measures to improve classroom air quality or ventilation; but nothing has been done. However, over a quarter (27%) said they’re aware of efforts to improve air quality that were abandoned due to a lack of funding or government support. This figure is as high as 50% in areas such as Scotland and Yorkshire and the Humber.
As the Covid-19 pandemic caused huge numbers of infections in schoolchildren and teachers, there was a renewed focus on air quality in classrooms and working environments. With the public now more aware of such issues, the government has a golden opportunity to take publicly supported action.
Local councils can also do their bit, by introducing school street systems. If they can ban cars on streets with schools during school run times, pollution at the school gates can be greatly reduced. Schools themselves can campaign to have a school street introduced – just one way they can enhance the air quality on site.
How can schools improve air quality and ventilation?
Teachers see the everyday effects of poor air quality on pupils – and also suffer the consequences themselves – so their insights on how to combat the issue are especially valuable.
The vast majority of teachers agree on the need to replace old heating appliances (which can contribute to indoor air pollution) with air filtration/purification systems. Schools should make such action a priority.
Other initiatives – such as moving playgrounds away from busy roads – will also improve air quality, but may take longer to achieve.
With significant effects on students’ and teachers’ health, as well as concentration levels and learning outcomes, the issue of air quality warrants a place towards the top of government agendas.
There is also much that local councils and schools can do to alleviate the problem of air pollution, whether that’s investing in ventilation systems or introducing car-free school streets.
We hope this survey will raise awareness of air quality issues around the country and help to expedite action.