Embracing innovation to resolve the air pollution crisis in education

One factor that’s often overlooked when measuring impacts on attainment is indoor air quality

As students settle back into a normal routine after an exceedingly difficult year, schools have a difficult challenge in ensuring peer groups get back to education on an equal footing. The attainment gap arising out of the pandemic will unfortunately be stark. The Education Policy Institute and Renaissance Learning presented in a report in February that pupils in the most deprived secondary schools have lost 2.2 months of learning, compared to 1.5 months for children in the most affluent. More recent research by the Education Endowment Foundation found that the attainment gap between disadvantaged primary pupils and their peers had widened by one month in maths since the onset of the pandemic. It’s therefore crucial that schools take every possible measure to ensure students, particularly the most disadvantaged, are sufficiently supported and their wellbeing prioritised in order to narrow this gap.

One area that is often overlooked when measuring impacts on attainment is indoor air quality. With students spending substantial proportions of their day in classrooms indoors, it’s essential that they’re able to breathe clean air that’s free of contaminants. This should be a key area of focus for schools coming out of the pandemic, given ventilation, filtration and air quality monitoring can all contribute greatly to reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 particles indoors.

Boundless benefits

Importantly, the benefits of improving indoor air quality for students extends far beyond limiting the spread of coronavirus; high concentrations of contaminants such as CO2 in classrooms does not just affect the long-term health and wellbeing of students, but also their learning capacity. Fatigue, concentration loss, and symptoms such as headaches brought on by high pollutant concentrations and hot classrooms can all lead to reduced productivity and impact learning outcomes. Studies have indicated that when these risks are managed by clean building solutions, cognitive test scores and productivity see notable increases.

What’s more, students should not have to face the long-term health and development concerns of learning in poorly-ventilated spaces. This includes a number of risks such as effects on the development of lung function, and the development and worsening of asthma. Research is also beginning to indicate harmful effects of air pollution on the developing brain, such as reduced memory function, as well as potential long-term mental health impacts. Recently released King’s College London research carried out over two decades found that children exposed to higher levels of air pollution growing up are more likely to suffer from poor mental health as 18-year-olds. After such a challenging year, students’ mental wellbeing should be an absolute priority for schools, and whilst the causal links must be further explored, every step should be taken to reduce potential contributors to poor mental wellbeing.

Pollution solution

Many schools rely on manual ventilation in their classrooms by opening windows, however external causes of discomfort such as noise or poor weather mean teachers cannot always ensure natural ventilation from outdoors in classrooms. More importantly, window ventilation does little to protect students in areas where outdoor air is also high in pollutants, a major problem in inner-city areas often home to some of the most disadvantaged students. Researchers from University College London highlighted in a study published in May 2021 that there are systemic inequalities in air pollution exposure in London. With the most disadvantaged students already at an increased risk due to high-density dwellings and local areas, as well as other structural factors affecting low-income families, it’s crucial that these children are not at a disproportionate risk in the classroom. Innovative solutions involving HEPA-type filtering along with real-time air quality monitoring and management can clean indoor air and remove pollutants, and if implemented in classrooms would go a long way to mitigating the dangers of dirty indoor air which pose a significant risk to disadvantaged students.

“All of these factors point to a need for schools and policymakers to make indoor air filtration and air quality monitoring a priority for schools”

All of these factors point to a need for schools and policymakers to make indoor air filtration and air quality monitoring a priority for schools. As the government embarks on its £1bn schools rebuilding programme, there’s an excellent opportunity to rethink how our schools are built, and ensure they’re set up to bring about the best outcomes for students. Embracing innovation to reduce contaminants and increase ventilation in schools will help bring out the best of students’ productivity, help reduce the attainment gap by making sure disadvantaged pupils can learn in a clean and safe environment, as well as having possible benefits on the long-term mental wellbeing of students. Cleaning our classroom air should start now.


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