A CHURCH school in central London whose pupils were once unable to play outside owing to poor air quality has fallen below the legal annual limit of air pollution for the first time since monitoring began in 2003, new research suggests.
Sir John Cass’s Foundation Primary School, which is situated in the Square Mile, has been working with the City of London Corporation to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) for the past 15 years, since the school was found to be several times over the government limit.
The air-quality manager at the City of London Corporation, Ruth Calderwood, explained: “The City had been declared an air-quality management area in 2001. We were doing a lot of monitoring at roadsides, but we didn’t have the levels of air pollution that people were being exposed to elsewhere.
“Because children are one of the groups of people who are more vulnerable to air pollution, because their lungs are still developing, we decided to monitor the school.”
Efforts began with the installation of a 24-hour air-quality monitoring station in the playground. Since then, “air quality” trees and ivy screens have been planted, and new infiltration systems installed in the classrooms to improve the air quality.
The headmaster, Tim Wilson, arrived at Sir John Cass in 2014. “I hope my actions have helped to enhance the project, but it is something that has been embedded in the relationship between the City and school for many years,” he said.
One of the most recent developments has been the completion of a £21-million transformation of the surrounding area. The Aldgate gyratory system — “a dirty old roundabout” — has been replaced with a new public square made up of 71 newly planted trees, to include the churchyard of St Botolph without Aldgate.
ALAMYTraffic in the City of LondonPavements have been widened, cycling routes improved, and traffic closed at the junction of Middlesex Street and St Botolph Street near by. “The biggest impact-changes are going to be those that reduce traffic flow and high-polluting vehicles from travelling next to the school,” Mr Wilson said.
Inside the school grounds, the planting has continued, watering systems have been added to the gardens, and awareness projects, including a gardening club, have been developed for the children.
“We want to teach them about pollution and environmental issues, to engage them with growing and cooking their own food.
“They love gardening. We often talk about air-filtering plants, the ivy screens, or helping in the gardens. They have looked at graphs produced from the monitoring, and written letters to Greenpeace and to the Mayor on air quality in London. It does feed into their curriculum.”
Interest does not stop with the pupils. Air quality is now a “key priority” of their parents, as well as those who send or hope to send, their children to inner-city schools in general, Mr Wilson said. “Parents consistently tell us that they are very worried about air quality, and concerned that there are comprehensive approaches to improving and dealing with it around the school.”
It had, therefore, become a priority of the school governors, including clergy. “Environmental awareness, and protecting and looking after the precious resources that are on the planet, is an important issue in the Church now.
“Certainly, our governors are engaged with it, and many schools across the London diocesan board. There are lots of primaries right in the middle of London, and it is obviously a hot topic in terms of how they improve their environments in the inner city.”
Keeping children indoors during breaks was a rare precaution, and there had been only one such occasion during his tenure, he said. “There was a day when some of our babies and younger children had to stay inside. It is very unusual. That was a very high-pollution-alert day, but it was also a very cold day. Our monitors mean we can alert staff and take action if a child is uncomfortable.”
Ms Calderwood explained: “Air pollution is very much linked to the weather, and, in certain conditions, we get high-pollution days; but that is not because there is any more pollution being produced locally, it is because the weather is trapping existing pollution in, whereas ordinarily it will be dispersed.”
Monitoring is the first step to understanding and reducing the problem, Mr Wilson said. Other schools have been to visit to learn more about what they can do.
The latest data from Sir John Cass was verified by King’s College, London. It shows that, as well as a reduction in NO2, levels of particles of PM10 and PM2.5 continue to be below the limits.
Ms Calderwood said: “It has taken a while, but that is not unexpected. London is so huge, there is so much that is contributing to the pollutions levels, and we are right in the middle and a very tiny area; so we are going to be one of the last places to meet health-based targets, because of our location.”
The Corporation has also been helping businesses to monitor and improve their air-quality through its CityAir programme, although progress is not monitored as closely as the school’s, Ms Calderwood said. “What we are concentrating on with the businesses is how they can reduce their own impact on air pollution. Then the impact would be felt across London, not just locally.”
It has introduced a City-wide 20mph zone, and launched a clean-air delivery scheme to tackle toxic air pollution in the Square Mile by shifting deliveries from diesel and petrol vans to cargo bicycles. Londoners can also search for pollution travel routes on its CityAir smartphone app.