One of the big flaws in many schools is the poor thermal performance of existing classrooms, particularly during the increasingly hot summers.

The NSW government appears to be taking action, with its $500 million Cooler Classrooms initiative. This is installing airconditioning for permanent learning spaces and libraries, in schools where the mean January maximum temperature is 30 degrees or above. Industry insiders familiar with the program say taxpayer dollars could be far better spent.

For a start, there’s no assessment of the classroom envelopes to discover ways to reduce air leakage, improve insulation, rectify poorly-performing glazing or fit better shading.

Instead the program is bolting on fairly standard airconditioning units and some solar PV to partly offset the increased energy consumption – bad value for money and bad for climate change.

The energy-hungry aircon systems being installed typically use around 12 times more electricity than the PV panels would provide – leaving schools with higher energy bills and carbon footprints.

They’re bad for indoor air quality too. While they do draw air from outside, unlike an average new commercial office system that automatically adjusts fresh air intake to reduce CO2 if it exceeds safe levels, the units only alert staff and students who must stop what they’re doing to adjust the settings. Our sources ask: do teachers really have the time to watch out for a raised hand from the HVAC?

The type of units being installed are also not the best available technology – they’re the cheapest mainstream one. When you think of innovations such as heat exchange ventilation systems, solar heat pumps, heat recovery systems, geothermal, hydronic or solar cooling – don’t our kids deserve better?

These systems will need monthly maintenance to clean filter units and have an operational design life of just 10 years.

And this at time when public schools are desperately short of funds.

So – upfront low spend shoves ongoing costs onto tight school budgets – and the whole exercise will have to be repeated in a decade.

The program also does not apply to demountable classrooms, a ubiquitous building type at many schools.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Education, all demountable classrooms and demountable libraries in NSW government schools fall under a separate funding arrangement.

The government’s delivery focuses on the quick, cheap and easy win that looks great in a press release but falls far short of the optimum.

Why not adopt tried and tested processes from the commercial building sector for our schools?

This type of general “bolt-on” approach to improving the environment of our schools exemplified by the Cooler Classrooms program shamefully ignores the established practices in the commercial building sector around improving building performance.

These steps are tried, tested and established.

First measure performance; then assess options for improving it; then undertake options to improve performance based on return on investment. The Fifth Estate has unearthed schools still struggling to obtain funding for simple LED lighting upgrades.

That such low-hanging energy-efficiency fruit remains tantalisingly out of reach for some, even though it is virtually last decade’s news in commercial buildings, is a betrayal.

Nationwide, energy is generally low on the list of schools’ priorities.

That’s according to the recent CRC for Low Carbon Living’s Low Carbon High Performance Schools research.

Its survey found that activities like composting, school gardens and rainwater harvesting were more widespread than energy audits, solar panels or energy efficiency upgrades.

Only 27 per cent of schools have an Action Plan to reduce their energy, water and waste consumption.

A similar picture is seen in the 350-odd South Australian schools and preschools who participate in the Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative-South Australia (AuSSI-SA).

The Clean Energy Council reports that the average school classroom uses 3800 KWh of electricity per year – about half that of an entire average Australian household.

All of the state-based school energy efficiency programs studied by the CEC are focused on bolt-on solutions of solar PV and technology upgrades or LED lighting upgrades rather than improving the buildings and reducing space heating and cooling demand.

Take the Queensland Advancing Clean Energy Schools program, which is providing $97 million for 800 schools to install solar panels, LED lighting and timed hot water services.

And the Victorian Greener Government School Buildings pilot program (part of a larger $2.8 billion spend on improving classrooms, upgrading facilities and building new schools) but which has only seen 100 schools install solar panels and energy efficient lighting.

Then there’s the Northern Territory government’s Rooftop Solar in Schools program, with $5 million for up to 25 schools to install solar PV.

And the NSW Government’s $1.1 million Schools Energy Productivity Program that again is focused on lighting and solar.

The awful temporary buildings onsite for 50 years

A holistic approach would address the major failing in our schools – the lamentable quality of demountable classrooms.

Demountable classrooms are technically a temporary building utilised by schools as a response to fluctuations in student numbers, or as transitional learning spaces during rebuilding or major redevelopment efforts

The CRCLCL found that 65 per cent of its survey respondents had them at their school – and they’d been there for more than 10 years on average – up to 50 years in some cases.

The majority reported them as uncomfortable, of poor quality and with negative impacts on health, wellbeing and students’ ability to concentrate and learn.

In particular, teachers reported negative impacts on mental health plus physical and cognitive impacts associated with poor ventilation, a link corroborated by the CRCLCL which found poor ventilation increases rates of asthma..

In any classroom type, respondents flagged indoor temperature, natural ventilation, natural light and indoor air quality as the most influential on student’s ability to learn, more so than the layout or teaching/learning technology in the space.

What all this research points to is the need for a fabric-first approach to improving schools for long term sustainability and for student and teacher wellbeing.

It also flags a need to rethink the use of conventional demountable classrooms.

The most forward-looking funded upgrade trial is probably two state-of-the-art modular, portable classrooms, designed and being trialled by start-up Hivve, in New South Wales at St Christopher’s Catholic Primary School and Dapto High School.

These supply all their own energy from solar PV plus a surplus for other classrooms, and boast monitors to help teachers and students learn about sustainability, air quality, energy use, solar and carbon emissions. The trial was given $370,000 funding from ARENA.

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  1. Given Australian homes are also built with limited ventilation and overly reliant on it conditioning this is of no surprise. It seems like there is money available for school upgrades at both federal and state levels but only political will for direct strategies that the public will understand. Until we are applying these strategies to our homes (better insulation, heat recovery, air tightness and high performance glazing with shading) how can we expect our politicians to use these principles?

  2. I actually noticed [and was somewhat horrified by] unflued gas heaters at my own child’s former primary school in the Riverina, where single digit temperature days are reasonably common through the winter term. They appeared to be the same design as I recall from my own school days in the 1970s and early 1980s! 30+ years later, and the technology had not progressed. That said, my understanding is the government in NSW does plan to replace unflued gas heaters in classrooms by making the new A/C units reverse cycle ones – however this appears to apply only to schools that qualify for the Cooler Classrooms fund by virtue of having the hot summer average temperatures

    The most recent DoE advice I can find for Principals in relation to unflued gas heaters [from 2018] mirrors what you have said about being advised to open a window for ventilation.

  3. Having tried to assist the students’ environment committee at my daughter’s school to do energy audit and propose solutions I completely agree with this article. At her school they are going for the AC option, but what is really needed is to unstick the painted closed upper sections of the sash windows and provide window poles so that in summer, overheated air can escape the high ceilinged classrooms. Instead, that hot air is trapped, stratified at the top of the room untill the “cooling” fans are turned on, then its dumped onto the occupants. That together with some horizontal shading. In winter the old windows are leaky and the insulation is poor, so ideally upgrade insulation and replace the windows with high performance ones. Also, it seems to fall to parents to rustle up the cash for LED lighting replacements because NSW government outlaw lease/buy contracts for this upgrade, that would save $000’s. Lastly there’s the debacle over computer/server loads which at her school are shocking, ostensibly left on stand-by 24/7/365, overnight and through the holidays to enable NSW to update and erase student content. Why this activity can’t be scheduled and timclocked beats me. 2/3rds of the schools electricity use is outside of occupied hours, including throughout the January holidays and if this is reapeated accross the state or nationally its an ironic trashing of the students future from the consequential CO2 emissions.

  4. my classroom experience as a teacher was state-government-installed gas radiators – UNFLUED – so the carbon monoxide produced would emit straight into the classroom full of young students !

    CO is an asphyxiant – colourless, tasteless, you don’t notice it – just breathe it in unaware until you lose consciousness – and die.

    The initial government advice was to open a window wide while the heaters were in use. WTF !?!?! In winter, when the outside air is freezing, turn on the heater to warn the air, then open the window to let the warmed air out and the freezing air in !?!? Totally stupid and unworkable.

    But hey that’s the government for you – give the contract to their mates – their mates install the cheapest highest-profit option – then walk away – leaving their captive politicians to mumble excuses when the public is harmed as a result.

  5. Simple solution. Have the NSW Parliament sit in early February for two weeks in a demountable classroom. The support staff can be in the ones at the other end of the playground.

  6. Sounds like parents need to launch some legal action! If a workplace caused this much impact on health it would be shut down.