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The importance of the built environment in academic success

Chris Coxon, of Eurocell, looks at the role buildings play in delivering an environment in which students can realise their full potential

Posted by Julian Owen | January 02, 2019 | People, policy, politics, money

Over the past decade and a half, consecutive UK governments have sought to improve school buildings in order to provide students with environments that support academic success. During this time, various initiatives have provided funding to either build new schools or improve existing buildings.

Failing to deliver

However, despite this investment, a recent survey of headteachers across the UK found that 70% of school buildings are not fit for purpose, with issues ranging from crumbling walls to damp and the need for new windows and doors. Furthermore, as a result of budgetary pressures, 88% of schools had been forced to cut routine building maintenance, creating environments that are noisy, lack ventilation and natural light.

Considered against a backdrop of an education funding crisis, these issues could be perceived as lower priorities than other challenges schools are currently trying to overcome. However, the learning environment plays a critical role in how well students perform academically.

Poor buildings impact learning

A study by the University of Salford found that three quarters of academic performance variation is caused by design and environmental factors. The study also reported that the academic performance of a child in the best environment could be expected to be 25% better than an equivalent child in the poorest classroom environment.  

One of the most influential environmental factors on academic achievement is the quantity of natural light in the classroom. A 2016 European study found that students' performance in maths and logic tests improved by 15% when students took them in well-lit rooms. This ties in with the findings of other studies into the general impact of natural light in buildings ,which have shown that natural light leads to benefits including an increase in the body’s endorphins and serotonin, higher energy levels, and greater productivity.

Budget flexibility will be critical for enabling schools to enhance the learning environment in buildings they are unable to reconfigure

Sound is equally important, with numerous studies finding that excessive noise pollution - such as that from roads, airports and train stations - negatively impacts academic achievement. Indeed, a recent study by the World Health Organisation found that noise pollution adversely impacts children’s cognitive development.

Taking steps to improve the learning environment

It’s clear that the environment school buildings provide should not be dismissed, but viewed as a key part of students academic journeys. And, despite the budget constraints that schools are currently facing, there are measures they can take to improve facilities to have a positive impact on student learning.

This starts with taking a fresh approach to building maintenance and design, beginning with considering different materials and products with the potential to deliver the same results as traditional counterparts, at a lower cost. As an example, PVC-U can be more cost-effective than aluminium and timber, while being equally durable and energy efficient. When multiplied across the various requirements of the school building, this can begin to make a significant difference.

These savings may enable schools to address what may seem trivial issues, but that severely impact the learning environment. This might include: replacing doors with ones allowing more light into the building; taking steps to soundproof classrooms; or installing roof lights in north-facing classrooms to increase natural light.

This change in mindset has the potential to make it possible to do more to improve the learning environment with the same budget, enabling school building managers to explore creative ways to increase natural light and reduce noise pollution in classrooms. Ultimately, this budget flexibility will be critical for enabling schools to enhance the learning environment in buildings they are unable to reconfigure.

Chris Coxon is head of marketing at Eurocell plc

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