Is Your Classroom Ventilation Good Enough?

By Alan Siggins

When the new school year kicks off this month, students should be refreshed and focussed on learning. But more than half of teachers think ventilation problems in classrooms could be hindering that learning.

Issues with facilities are nothing new in schools, but a new report has highlighted ventilation as a key concern among teachers.

The Air Quality in UK Classrooms Report – conducted by experts in air movement and ventilation solutions Airflow – asked teachers at 133 UK schools for insights into working and learning conditions. Some 53% of them detailed a negative impact on grades and performance when air quality is poor.

What’s more, the report revealed that the air quality in almost three in four (72%) classrooms is ‘below standard’. Responding to the report, the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) labelled indoor air quality (IAQ) in UK classrooms a ‘national scandal’.

What is indoor air quality?

Air quality refers to levels of pollutants in the air we breathe. Indoor air quality is concerned with the quality of air in and around buildings, particularly in relation to its effects on occupants’ health and comfort.

Various sources of pollution can affect indoor quality. These include radon, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and even the carbon dioxide (CO2) we breathe out.

Different authorities have different limits for each pollutant, particularly in places like classrooms. For example, the Health and Safety Executive in the UK says that in an occupied room, CO2 levels consistently above 1,500 parts per million (ppm) point to poor ventilation and require action. Even levels closer to 1,000 ppm can cause fatigue, headaches and a loss of focus.

The impact of poor air quality on students

It’s abundantly clear that many teachers have seen first-hand the effects of poor air quality. According to the report, 91% of teachers believed that poor air quality affects students’ health, behaviour or focus. For London, the figure was even higher at 96%.

Meanwhile, 6 in 10 teachers (61%) have witnessed an effect on pupils’ health, such as asthma or other lung conditions. Plus, more than three-quarters (77%) of teachers stated poor air quality in their school meant students found it harder to concentrate, potentially affecting their performance.

The impact on teachers

Almost three in five teachers thought a classroom with poor air quality was ‘not fit for purpose’ – for students or teachers.

Even more than that (63%) understood that poor air quality could affect their physical and mental health.

Unsurprisingly then, almost a quarter of teachers (23%) in schools with ‘below standard’ air quality worried about resulting school closure.

How does temperature affect indoor air quality?

In particular, colder temperatures can have a considerable effect on indoor air quality.

In the UK, an obvious problem is mould, a pollutant that can form when spaces are consistently exposed to condensation or there’s excess moisture in the air. When the mercury drops, there are more cold surfaces to draw the water vapour out of humid air – and cause condensation. Left unchecked, condensation can easily result in mould, which can lead to allergies, respiratory infections, asthma and various other health issues.

Another factor during the colder months is that exhaust pollutants from roads often linger close to the ground, trapped by dense cold air. The result is that indoor environments, especially in busy cities, are subjected to more exhaust pollutants during the winter.

What’s more, whether it’s exhaust pollutants or mould schools are trying to banish, winter makes it harder to ventilate classrooms properly.

What improvements do teachers want to see?

Teachers obviously care deeply about their students’ welfare. So, not only are they keenly aware of air quality issues in their classrooms, but they’re quick to raise the alarm. However, almost a third (31%) of teachers at schools with ‘below standard’ air quality said that no action had been taken when they requested improvements to air quality.

Around a quarter (27%) worked at schools that are trying to improve air quality, but are held back by insufficient funding or government support. If funding was available, these are the changes that most teachers wanted to see:

      • Replace old heating appliances (which can be sources of indoor air pollution) – 72% of teachers
      • Fit air purification or filtration systems – 71%
      • Ban cars on school-adjacent streets during school run times – 38%
      • Move playgrounds and classroom windows away from roads – 32%

How can schools improve air quality and ventilation in the short term?

While poor air quality is clearly a serious problem in schools, some of its causes will take time and significant investment to eliminate. And as we all know, funding is a persistent problem.

But even in the short term, schools have options.

The most obvious – and crudest – measure available to schools is opening windows and doors whenever possible. Having applied such measures during the Covid-19 pandemic, schools should already have guidance in place on this. However, this is clearly not a workable solution during the cooler months.

Naturally, getting rid of sources of indoor pollution will go a long way to improving air quality. Chemicals like formaldehyde and asbestos can be found in the very structures of our schools, so it can be difficult to banish them entirely, but it’s easier to make sure no toxic cleaning products are used.

As 71% of teachers in the report said, air purifiers can help to improve air quality, but going beyond that, ventilation systems can have a much greater effect. For example, a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery system can make sure polluted, stale air is constantly replaced with fresh air from outside.

Whatever steps schools take, one thing is certain: monitoring air quality is vital. Not only will this make sure students and teachers aren’t exposed to dangerous levels of pollutants, having data on air quality can be a powerful weapon in the fight for more funding.

Alan Siggins, managing director of Airflow Developments, said:

“This report makes clear the need for urgent and long-lasting action on air quality in schools. It also makes a compelling case for government funding.

Teachers can see the everyday impact of poor air quality on concentration levels in students – and know that students’ futures can be affected. They also see how serious respiratory conditions and allergies are aggravated, and how their own health can suffer.

I hope that greater awareness of air quality post-Covid means authorities will prioritise proper ventilation in schools. If they invest in modern ventilation systems, they’ll also find that their schools use less energy, so it also makes financial sense.

As the new school year begins, it’s an opportunity for authorities to take stock and make sure schools are healthy places to be. Both students and teachers deserve an environment where they can learn and work to the best of their abilities.”

Mrs. X, who works at a London primary school but did not want to be named for job security reasons, says:

“Even with windows open, pollution around the school area means that air quality is not drastically improved. We know that poor air quality and ventilation lead to higher levels of CO2 in the classroom, which affects cognitive performance (reduces memory, impairs concentration, lowers decision-making abilities) and inhibits learning.

In addition, children who struggle with self-regulation find it particularly hard to be in poorly-ventilated environments and may demonstrate disruptive behaviour, leading to them being sent out of the classroom, meaning they are not learning from their teacher.”

Nicola D’Urso, school speech and language therapist, adds:

“Some schools I work in have indoor areas which are poorly ventilated without any windows. I’ve seen examples of children fainting and disengaging due to dehydration in excessively hot and stuffy classrooms. It’s not uncommon for children to become drowsy and even the brightest students can stop interacting in lessons. I notice caring and responsible teachers often having to prioritise children’s health and wellbeing during lessons instead of teaching them the educational content.

“The main obstacle is that senior leadership teams in schools are at the mercy of their local council’s policy on clean air and limiting air pollution. The roadblock for schools is that it’s a bit out of their hands given that it’s up to the council and the government to get a grasp of air pollution and put adequate policies in place.”


About the author

Alan joined Airflow Developments in 2008 as Managing Director. Prior to this, he served in various other industry sectors. Alan has represented BEAMA the industry body for ventilation when helping to design and implement compliance and competency schemes for ventilation. He also represented industry for the Government commissioned review Each Home Counts.


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