Poor lighting can affect pupils’ health and happiness


Gent researchers say that the quality and amount of light in schools has a significant effect on children’s health and well-being

Let there be light

In Dickensian novels, children are often depicted weakening their eyesight while scratching their lessons on a slate or sewing by candlelight. It might not be quite that bad anymore, but kids in Flemish schools are still suffering from poor lighting in their classrooms, according to researchers in Ghent.

What’s more, lighting systems – which account for about 70% of the electricity consumption in Flanders’ schools – are so out of date, the researchers say, that not only do they provide sub-standard lighting, they are also highly inefficient, creating unnecessarily high bills when many schools are already short on funds.

Researchers at the University of Leuven’s Technology Campus in Ghent, passive house platform Pixii and WTCB, the scientific and technical centre for construction, have conducted a study including several pilot projects assessing the impact of daylight systems on the design and renovation of school buildings. The aim was to ascertain just how serious the problem is and to devise methods to improve both the quality of light and its energy consumption.

Wouter Ryckaert, from the Laboratory for Light Technology and Sustainable Buildings at KU Leuven, said: “What you see in schools are old lights with high energy consumption, and in many cases there is not enough light.”

While dim lights might be good for a romantic dinner, in classrooms they have another effect. “If there’s not enough light in a classroom, the room looks uncomfortable and gloomy,” said Ryckaert, adding that this is hardly conducive to pupils’ concentration and happiness.

Get up and glow

As anyone working in a dingy office can testify, light can have an enormous effect on health and well-being. A lack of light has also been proved to lead to depression in conditions such as Seasonal Adjustment Disorder, and to lower workers’ productivity.

Poor lighting in schools is as much a problem, as demonstrated in a recent study by Lighting for People, part of an EU-funded research project to introduce better quality lighting systems throughout the European Union.

After a year it was already clear that commissioning a daylight control system is very important

- Wouter Ryckaert

The study, which focused on education, shows that pupils who benefit from optimised lighting perform better in class, demonstrate better levels of social behaviour and in general show higher levels of well-being.

Optimised lighting can mean the intensity of the light (measured in lux units) and the colour of the light. Insufficient blue light, known as cold light, in the morning can delay bedtimes and reduce alertness. Warm light was found to be essential for oral and reading fluency.

Ryckaert said that in his study, he found many classrooms with only about 200 lux units of light while the recommended level, according to studies like the one by the EU, is 500 lux. He added that in some classrooms, children could hardly see the blackboard because of a lack of lighting and that such conditions exacerbate learning problems and conditions such as ADHD.

Even though the lighting is poor, another area for concern is that the lighting is always on. Ryckaert said his team noted that when the classroom was empty, no one turns it off. And when there is plenty of daylight, the fact that the lights are still on goes unnoticed, wasting yet more money.

Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a pillar of the EU’s approach to reducing overall energy consumption – buildings make up about 40% of this – and greenhouse gas emissions, for which buildings account for 36%.

Natural light

“If you can reduce the electricity consumption in schools, then you can reduce costs and energy consumption. Electricity costs are also rising, so it’s important to reduce the costs,” said Ryckaert, adding that an automatic switch-off after 10 minutes of a room being empty costs only €30.

In the pilot project, Ryckaert and his team of researchers spent two years installing energy-efficient lighting systems in 10 classrooms in seven locations in primary and secondary schools across Flanders.

“We measured several parameters such as occupancy, energy consumption, incoming daylight,” he said. “After a year it was already clear that the commissioning of a daylight control system is very important.”

A daylight control system is effectively a dimmer switch so that as natural light – the healthiest option for mind and body – floods into the classroom, the artificial lighting is dimmed, and vice versa, maintaining a constant level of luminosity.  This combined with an automatic off switch could reduce electricity use by up to 30%.

The education ministry’s agency for innovation, AGION, supported the project; it is now busy studying the research findings and is therefore unable to comment for now about what the ministry will do to improve lighting in schools. The researchers have now requested funding to extend their project to office buildings.