What can schools do about pollution?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We are finding out more about the impact of poor air quality on our children, especially in urban areas. But what can schools do to protect their pupils and to raise awareness? Suzanne O’Connell reports

In May 2018, the report Indoor Air Quality in London’s Schools was published. It had been commissioned by the major of London and investigated the level of indoor air pollution in the capital’s schools.

It comes at a time of increasing concern about levels of childhood asthma in the UK. In fact, the UK has the highest level of childhood asthma among all European countries. Almost 10 per cent of children in the UK suffer from asthma and prevalence is particularly high in urban schools.

The report’s researchers found that, according to existing studies, children attending schools near high-density traffic roads were exposed to higher levels of motor vehicle exhaust gases and there was a greater likelihood of childhood asthma and wheezing.

It also found that outdoor nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM) pollution – much of it caused by diesel vehicles as well as tyre and brake dust – is infiltrating classrooms, where pupils spend much of their time. Young children are more vulnerable to airborne pollutants than adults and the report warns that they are breathing in fine particle pollution – PM10 and PM2.5 – at levels higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. For PM10, the report finds that pupils are being exposed to higher levels of pollution inside the classroom than outside.

Schools are often located in close proximity to busy roads and the nature of the building and even the impact of wind direction can have an effect on the level of pollution experienced by pupils.

The report suggests that those that are more “air-tight” may offer greater protection. However, it’s not just pollutants coming from outside. Schools are high occupancy environments and this creates a number of PM pollutants. These include:

  • Those created by human presence and behaviour (CO2, moisture, bio effluents and dust).
  • Those emitted by furnishing and equipment (VOCs – volatile organic compounds).

The threats from within to air quality include dust reservoirs such as carpets and soft furnishings. Even the type of cleaning products used make a difference. For example, the use of bleach raises the presence of pinene and limonene in comparison to those using low-emitting cleaning products.

Where ventilation is good then the indoor concentration of pollutants will be less, but the circulation of traffic pollutants may be more. Schools must juggle opening their windows for fresh air with letting the pollutants in. Last year London mayor Sadiq Khan launched a programme of air quality audits, which have now been carried out in 50 schools across 23 London boroughs. The schools were shortlisted according to their exposure to NO2 and the number of pupils per school and the audits have made recommendations to help protect pupils.

These include major infrastructure measures, such as closing roads or moving playgrounds and school entrances, as well as targeting indoor pollution using improved ventilation systems and installing “pollution barrier” hedges, tackling engine idling outside schools, and promoting cycling and walking.

A new £1 million fund has now been unveiled to help give each of the 50 audited schools a £10,000 starter grant and to enable any other London schools located in areas exceeding legal air pollution limits to apply for green infrastructure funding.

While tackling the effect of pollution and emissions is vital work, perhaps the long-term answer lies less in closing the windows and turning on the air con and more in tackling air pollution from a political point of view.

The Unicef report

Unicef UK has been involved in its own research into air quality around schools. A report was published in September 2018 called The Toxic School Run. The research was completed by Queen Mary University of London and found that about 60 per cent of daily air pollution to which children are exposed in cities occurs at school or on the way to or from it.

The report looked at particulate matter with a focus on children’s exposure to black carbon. Particulate matter are the tiny bits of solids and liquids that are in the air and range from soot and dust to particles which are smaller than the width of a human hair. Their methodology included the close involvement of pupils in keeping an activity diary and carrying a MicroAeth personal monitor.

The action plan following the report includes calling on the government to set out a UK-wide air pollution strategy for children. A major strand of their approach is empowering pupils, both by increasing their awareness through education and encouraging children to take action themselves.

The OutRight campaign

Unicef’s OutRight campaign now has a total of 880 schools and youth organisations signed up from across the UK. Following on from The Toxic School Run report they have developed materials for schools to use to raise awareness and engage children in actively making their voices heard. Their resource pack for children (ages 8-11) includes ways to:

  • Raise awareness of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child: “Every child has the right to a clean environment, including breathing clean air wherever they live, learn and play” (Article 24).
  • Draw attention to the ways that children and young people can have their voices heard through the Parliamentary system in the UK.
  • Learn about how OutRight’s Paddington resource can illustrate and deepen understanding about the environment.
  • Establish how bad the air pollution in their local area is through the use of a diffusion tube kit.
  • Recognise harmful pollution sources and also solutions and actions that can be taken.

The material can also help schools to achieve the outcomes in Strand C of the Rights Respecting Schools Award. However, it can be used independently by schools who want to raise awareness about the specific issue of air pollution.

Children take the lead

A key aspect of the OutRight campaign is that children take the lead. This has very much been the approach at Sciennes Primary School in Edinburgh.

“The children have spoken at the Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh City Chambers, addressed headteachers’ meetings and met MPs,” explained Lucy Gallagher, the deputy headteacher.

What has surprised and pleased Ms Gallagher is that having started at a local level, the children have also embraced the importance of looking at issues on a more national and international scale: “They’re not just interested in the impact of pollution on their local environment but for others around the world.”

Sciennes’ involvement began when SEPA (the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) offered to put a large air quality monitor temporarily in their playground. This attracted a lot of interest and offered many teaching opportunities.

The school had already been campaigning to have the road in front of school permanently closed. The monitoring of air quality linked in closely with this and their involvement in ActiveTravel, a campaign by the Scottish government, and School Streets, a campaign by the City of Edinburgh Council. This has included walking to school drives and even a Sustrans bicycle repair point being set up in the playground.

At Bonner Primary School in Tower Hamlets the subject of air pollution has also gripped the children. Assistant headteacher Leah Pulman is science co-ordinator at the school and recognised the opportunities the subject gave as a special project.

She explained: “The children have opportunity sometimes to choose their own topics. They wanted to find out more and we investigated levels of pollution and explored the issue in a cross-curricular way.”

The end result was an impressive presentation that combined art work, music and a video – Mama Mia. Unicef heard about their topic and some of their own resources feature the children from the school.

Ms Pulman added: “We are a Rights Respecting School, so it fitted well with our ethos and the children have learnt many skills during the project. They learnt how to plan, how to record clean air and how to find clean air routes to school. Families have become involved in making choices to tackle the air pollution problem.”

Comparing air quality

The children and families at Bonner and Sciennes have been able to see the relevance of this issue to their health and this has added to their enthusiasm for the topic and determination to do something about it. “Altogether is has turned into a very powerful campaign which the children have become very involved in,” Ms Gallagher added. “They’ve been comparing air quality around their school and in other areas we’ve visited. We have a diffusion kit now and some handheld monitors. They can see how much cleaner the air is in Aviemore, for example.”

Bonner has also been using diffusion kits during their investigations. As they operate on two sites it has been interesting to compare the air quality between them.

“One is off the main road and one is directly on it,” explained Ms Pulman. “The children can see the difference in the air quality. The next step is for them to join the campaign in writing to people who can directly influence the causes of the pollution in the first place.”

For both schools the subject has inspired the whole school community and will continue to provide material to study and topics for discussion for years to come. However, what’s also important is that this is backed by research reports and political interest in addressing the situation. The voices of school children like those of Sciennes and Bonner, have to be heard. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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