Physical environment

Changing the physical learning environment, either by moving to a new school building; or seeking to improve the design, air quality, noise, light, or temperature of an existing building.

How effective is it?

Overall, changes to the physical environment of schools are unlikely to have a direct effect on learning beyond the extremes (i.e. once an adequate building standard has been achieved).

Moving to a new building could be an effective part of a whole school change that seeks to change behaviour and establish new norms (similar to introducing or changing School Uniform), but there is no evidence that new buildings or particular aspects of architecture directly improve learning. Where a new building is being used as a catalyst for change, there is some evidence supporting the impact of co-design, or involving potential beneficiaries in taking responsibility for learning spaces and changing their behaviours as they adapt to new settings.

Most individual factors in the physical environment show a relationship with learning only at the extremes. In terms of sound, if the noise levels are high (such as under the flight path of an airport) then there can be a measurable detrimental effect on learning. In terms of temperature, warmer and more humid conditions (particularly above 30°C conditions) can cause a loss of concentration and drowsiness. It appears that lighting in schools is usually adequate for reading and writing. The evidence on ambient music is inconclusive as it appears that people react differently to different kinds of music according to their preferences. Similarly with colour in the environment, personal preference is probably more important than any general effect.

Air quality is the one exception to the general picture on school environment. The evidence suggests low air quality does have a negative impact on attainment (reducing word recognition by 15% in one study).

How secure is the evidence?

The research on the impact of the physical environment on learning is generally weak, and is mainly based on correlational studies or drawn as inferences from wider environmental research. There are very few rigorous experimental designs, and this makes it hard to establish causal claims about the impact of physical changes.

Regarding air quality, there is evidence that some English classrooms have higher CO2 concentrations than the average recommended levels. Given that the link between air quality and academic achievement is better established than other aspects of the physical environment, this may be a worthwhile area for future study.

For full references and effect sizes, please click here.

What are the costs?

It is very difficult to estimate the costs of physical changes as they are usually part of capital spending and a single cost, rather than a recurrent part of a school budget. A new secondary school costs about £15 million for 1,500 pupils or £10,000 per pupil. However several generations of pupils are likely to use the building. Improving air quality can be done relatively cheaply with better ventilation, filtration and the use of dehumidifiers where necessary. Overall, costs are estimated as low.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. Most environmental factors have an impact on classrooms only at the extremes.

  2. Air quality is likely to be the most significant factor affecting learning, particularly where there is poor ventilation or high levels of dust and other pollutants

  3. If you have a new learning environment, it provides an opportunity to change the expectations and behaviour of pupils, but it is unlikely to have a direct impact on learning. Have you considered how you will take advantage of the new environment to bring about improvements in these expectations?