A lighter lesson for schools

The Department of Children, Schools and Families recently launched a whitepaper which outlined a set of key performance requirements for lighting systems in schools including the minimum standards that must be reached in key areas such as good lighting to support teaching and learning, emergency lighting and energy efficiency.

While the report concentrates on the build of new schools, we believe that many existing schools are unaware that they have poor lighting and perhaps more alarmingly, are taking risks with their fire safety and emergency lighting plans.

More expert advice, education and resources are required to ensure that schools have the correct information, understand the funding opportunities available to them and build a plan to keep their school lighting systems and maintenance up to scratch.

Lighting, teaching and learning

Who hasn’t been in a building or school and at some point felt a headache coming on, felt slightly dizzy or unable to concentrate?  While some would blame it on the subject matter or lack of sleep, many cases show that it is down to poor lighting caused by aging or inefficient lighting systems. Our eyesight is resilient, so we may be unaware of the problems caused by poor lighting but the side effects are serious, including slower reading, poor posture, diminished concentration and long-term weakened vision.

So what causes these side effects?

Poor lighting can often produce glare and flicker. Glare is a common problem in the classroom and occurs when a bright image (which is not the object one is trying to see) is seen either directly or reflected by light. The two types of glare, discomfort glare and disability glare can result in an increase in difficulty with visual tasks, causing students to squint or adjust their posture to see more clearly. Squinting and posture adjustment can cause eyestrain, headaches, loss of concentration and reduced productivity. 

The problem of glare can be controlled by accessing the lighting installation in terms of its glare rating and ensuring that it does not exceed the recommended maximum. There are several other ways to minimise glare including the use of louvers on fluorescent luminaires and/or the use of indirect lighting solutions, which will help reduce direct vision of the light source and therefore the instance of glare.

While deeply annoying, flicker can also produce stroboscopic effects with moving objects, which can be dangerous as epilepsy can be triggered by low frequency flashes of light, which can occur with some compact fluorescent lamps at ignition, or with discharge lamps towards the end of their life. Problems relating to balance and some brain disorders can also be exacerbated.

In addition current guidelines on lux levels advise that illumination should be between 300 – 500 lux, depending on whether the school is a junior or secondary and the type of lessons being undertaken in each classroom. However, we have found schools with lux levels as low as 150.

Energy efficiency

The Sustainable Development Commission estimates that schools contribute to 2% of the UK’s overall carbon emissions, with around half of this arising from the use of electricity and fossil fuels in school buildings. Artificial lighting currently accounts for the highest proportion of all energy costs, at around 28%. For this reason, good lighting installation offers the greatest potential for saving energy by applying good management, design, specification and controls. 

The energy efficiency of artificial lighting can depend on many factors including the luminaire efficiency and its electrical components, lamps and control gear as well as the operation, cleaning and maintenance regime. For example, something as simple as the use of automatic lighting controls can save as much as 30-40% of electricity consumption when compared to manual switching.

New, high frequency lights use 30-40% less power than the old units and last much longer which reduces the need for maintenance and repairs and increases the cost and energy savings to be made. In addition, installing sensors which automatically switch the lights off when the classroom is empty will help save energy.

We have recently worked with Buckingham Junior School in Hampton to focus on the school’s energy efficiency and the school has seen the electricity usage drop and the school improve its energy efficiency rating from a D to a B.

Emergency lighting

Emergency lighting must provide sufficient illumination in the event of a failure of the normal electric lighting supply, so that the building can be evacuated quickly and safely. However, there is an increasing concern that a number of public sector buildings, specifically schools do not have sufficient fire alarms and emergency lighting systems in place and many that do not comply with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO).

The FSO came into effect in October 2006 and replaced over 70 pieces of fire safety law with one new order. It means that any person who has some level of control in a premises must take steps to reduce the risk from fire, consider how to contain a fire should one break out and then also make sure people can safely escape.

In simple terms, most commercial buildings require a Fire Risk Assessment which outlines how to improve fire safety and can include recommendations for the installation of fire alarms and emergency lighting systems. It is important to note that the fire authorities no longer issue fire certificates and those that were previously in force no longer have legal status.

Most schools and public sector buildings have few emergency lights and those that do, unless they are new, seldom comply with BS 5266 (the emergency lighting regulations). For example, a recent visit to a local school showed that they had virtually no emergency lights and those that were present had not been serviced for the past five years. Additionally, the lighting had not been tested in accordance with the required maintenance schedule.

Head teachers, facilities and maintenance managers should be aware of the facts but often budget restraints are an issue. The fact remains however that the FSO is a statutory instrument and any persons deemed to be responsible for a building are breaking the law if they fail to comply with it.

Fortunately, there are simple steps that schools can take to ensure that their emergency lighting is complying with FSO. They should apply for a free emergency lighting assessment which will check that emergency lighting is in place in escape routes, escape stairways, corridors without any windows and areas that are accessible to the public during the evenings.


There are grants available for upgrading lighting in schools as the Government is keen to encourage energy efficiencies in order to help meet their carbon reduction targets. New lighting can result
in reduced energy costs plus lower maintenance bills because high frequency lamps last much longer than standard fluorescent lamps.

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