Pupils are restless, sweating and have the attention span of gnats. With another record-breaking summer forecast, Hannah Frankel reports on how global warming in the classroom is making you do more than gently glow
Welcome to our Great British Summer. Four years ago, temperatures rocketed in the UK to a Mediterranean 100 LESS THAN F, or 38 LESS THAN C ("Hotter than Hong Kong, Havana and Honolulu!" cried the tabloids), and if predictions are to be believed, we are set to break records again this summer. And this is just the beginning: forecasters state that in approximately 35 years, every other summer will be hotter than the 2003 heatwave.
Stiflingly hot classrooms may not be the worst consequence of global warming, but it does take its toll. Last year Fir Vale School in Sheffield was forced to drill holes in the walls to ventilate classrooms, while about 1,200 pupils were sent home from Pimlico School in central London as the glass and concrete building turned into a giant greenhouse (see box on page 19). This week Cardinal Wiseman technology college in London announced it was banning pupils from wearing ties because of rising temperatures.
The worst offenders seem to be schools built in the past five years. A report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) says that nearly all recently built schools fail to meet even the most basic requirements such as adequate natural daylight and ventilation. It was particularly critical of schools built under PFI (private finance initiative) contracts, saying they comprised nine of the 10 worst schools in its audit.
Classrooms in the privately-financed St Peter's CE school in Exeter have already hit 30 LESS THAN C this year, and are expected to exceed 34 LESS THAN C over summer, according to Mark Perry, head. "Heat is the problem that's going to close this place, if anything does," he warns.
It is schools like this that will be forced to turn pupils away if a maximum classroom temperature is introduced. At present, workplace regulations stipulate that pupils must be sent home if temperatures drop below 18 LESS THAN C, but there is no maximum temperature. However, if the National Union of Teachers gets its way, pupils and teachers should be able to walk out when thermometers hit 26 LESS THAN C.
The thought of hundreds of schools having to close every summer - over the last decade, most summers have gone well beyond the 26 LESS THAN C mark - is precisely why there are no plans for change. The Department for Education and Skills says that instead of imposing "inflexible guidelines that may deny young people education", it expects schools to use their own discretion in applying current guidance. To date, building regulations say that temperatures should not exceed 28 degrees for more than 120 hours per school year. Like all workplaces, the temperature in schools should be "reasonable", but it is up to schools to interpret what that means. "The design and building regulations are clear, and we are building new schools to the highest standards," a government spokesman says. "The bottom line is that we leave it to individual schools to judge for themselves how to apply them."
Schools that are already feeling the heat, therefore, have to find their own ways of cooling down. The timber-framed Kingsmead Primary School in Northwich, Cheshire, is doing just that. Built as an exemplar of sustainable design and construction in 2004, its impeccable green credentials do not compromise comfort. While its solar panels are generating electricity and hot water, its north facing classrooms ensure that there are no major fluctuations in light and temperature. Should things become too steamy, its motorised skylights automatically pulse air into the rooms and the blinds close.
The glazed "winter gardens" attached to each pair of classrooms keep heat out in summer and reduce heat loss when the doors to the playground are opened in the winter. In fact, light and ventilation is so good that, on most days, lights are rarely used - reducing the heat and electricity generated.
"It always feels cool when we come in from outside on a hot day," says Catriona Stewart, the headteacher. And because most people want to work in an attractive, comfortable and, in this case, radical environment, the school receives about 80 applicants for every teaching post.
Green buildings like Kingsmead tend to be hotter because they are naturally ventilated. But they can avoid this pitfall by actively involving teachers and pupils in the planning process, says Ty Goddard, director of the British Council for School Environments, which held the first National School Environments Week this week. "Temperature affects people in their offices and their homes, so why not in schools?" he asks. "Teachers and pupils are constantly telling us that temperature affects how they feel and how they learn, so it must be a design priority." Whatever the weather, chances are The Academy of St Francis of Assisi in Liverpool will be ready for it. Built two years ago on a former rubbish dump, the academy has considered in minute detail how it will affect (and be affected by) the environment - to such an extent that it is now the first school in Britain to specialise in sustainability. The school's large solar-powered, south-facing atrium (covered in the same giant "bubble-wrap" as the Eden Project in Cornwall), provides up to 10 per cent of St Francis's electricity. In winter it allows most heat and light to come through; in the summer when the sun is high, its 70 LESS THAN angle means most heat bounces off the surface.
"It does its work," says Steve McElroy, vice principle. "In the July heatwave last year, it was 38 LESS THAN C on the roof, but in the north-facing classrooms it was very comfortable. Some pupils in a neighbouring school were sent home because they couldn't take the heat, and another school was closed down, but we stayed open throughout."
Surprisingly perhaps, this green school is made entirely out of concrete.
For every cubic metre of concrete used, a building will produce a ton of carbon dioxide, so St Francis' carbon footprint already weighs in at some 10,000 tons. But because concrete absorbs the sun's energy, heating bills are markedly reduced, and in 60 years' time it will have neutralised the carbon footprint of its construction.
Less surprising is the fact that the school building has had a significant knock on effect on behaviour and attainment, according to Steve. Earlier this year, St Francis came top of the country's contextual value added league table, and exam results are showing marked improvements. The Government hopes these examples will inspire other schools. Under its pound;8 billion Building Schools for the Future scheme, every secondary school in England is set to be rebuilt or renewed within 15 years.
"Even if it's just getting refurbished, schools can do a lot to improve ventilation if given the time and information they need," says Elizabeth Parson, senior enabling advisor at CABE. "Getting the basics right can make all the difference to a school's future."
Pimlico School, central London, was built in 1970 and its heavily glazed classrooms regularly hit 40xC. The hall and gym are worse. Exam boards are told the temperatures may affect performance, but Westminster Council will no longer pay pound;1,000 a week for industrial fans and air conditioning.
Stephen Barlow, a science teacher and NUT health and safety adviser, has been recording its temperature for 20 years. On average, the school is between five to 10 degrees hotter than outside.
Last year, it rose to 45xC and pupils were sent home. "It is impossible to teach in those conditions," he says. "The kids can't concentrate, they're dehydrated and constantly going out to get water. I've seen teachers literally wet through with sweat."
Pimlico has had to follow a continental timetable, with pupils leaving at 1pm and it may adopt this for the entire summer term. It is to be demolished and rebuilt later this year as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, but the new-build won't be ready before 2010.
A working group has been looking at how academies use "passive cooling".
Cool air enters vents at the bottom of the school and leaves via vents at the top. "It's an interesting idea, but it wouldn't work for extreme temperatures," says Stephen. "We need a permanent solution."
Keeping cool tips
Orientation: Preferably classrooms will be north-south facing. If not, good ventilation is crucial.
Solar shading: A shade on the outside of windows will reduce glare in the classroom.
Materials: Those with a high "thermal mass", such as concrete, are preferable because they absorb heat in the day and release it at night.
Computer rooms: Lower blinds and keep windows open.
Through ventilation: Windows should open on both sides of the classroom for a breeze.
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Peak temperature recorded at a London school
Top outside temperature recorded in Britain, summer 2003
Average summer temperature in Hawaii
Building regulations' suggested maximum workplace temperature
Union demand for maximum workplace temperature
Legal minimum workplace temperature
Average outside summer temperature in Britain
Average December temperature in Britain