Reducing air pollution around schools could improve children’s ability to learn, according to new research.

A study to mark Clean Air Day Scotland found that lowering air pollution in and around school grounds by 20 per cent could enhance the development of a child’s working memory by 6% - the equivalent of four extra weeks of learning time per year.

The research, carried out over a year, looked at 19 schools and around 6000 pupils, and examined ways to reduce indoor and outdoor pollution and the impact of doing so.

In addition to improving children’s health, the programme - conducted by the University of Manchester - found that it also improved children’s ability to learn, prompting calls for local and national governments to take action.

Martie van Tongeren, professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Manchester, said: “Pollution of indoor and outdoor air affects the health of our children. In addition, the available evidence indicates that it affects their cognitive development, which may affect educational attainment.

“Studies that investigate the link between exposure to air pollution during early life and effects of educational attainment and brain health at later life are urgently needed and policies should be set out by ministers to tackle this urgent challenge, immediately.

“Improving air quality in and around schools will benefit children’s health and educational development and should be a priority for government, local authorities and schools.”

Government data on air quality shows air pollution decreased by an average of up to 40% across the UK in peak national lockdown during April and May 2020, compared to the same time last year.

Environment Protection Scotland, the organiser behind Clean Air Day Scotland, claims this shows that it is viable to create a 20% reduction in pollution around school grounds.

A number of streets outside schools in Scotland have already been closed, or are being considered for closure, to traffic at pick up and drop off times.

Sciennes Primary School is among those schools in Edinburgh to have implemented such a closure, while in Glasgow, car free zones are being considered around 21primary schools under the city council’s ‘Spaces For People’ programme.

The researchers behind the new study have teamed up with the Global Action Plan and the Philips Foundation to create a Clean Air for Schools Framework - an online tool for schools and local authorities to help tackle air pollution around schools.

Chris Large, co-CEO at Global Action Plan, said: “This year long research project has uncovered the effects air pollution has on our children’s ability to learn, as well as their health.

“Given lockdown restrictions have already impeded learning time, we must give all children a fighting chance, especially those in pollution hotspots who are also likely to be victims of the attainment gap.

“The new Clean Air for Schools Framework is now available for free to help any school set up a clean air action plan, but schools cannot do this alone. We ask the government to bring together all parties with potential solutions – NGOs, local government, education leaders and businesses – to combine under one national effort to eliminate harmful pollutants from schools.”

John Bynorth, of Environmental Protection Scotland, added: “This research highlights how air pollution affects people of all ages, from the young, who suffer the effects of inhaling poor quality air, to the oldest in society. It shortens life expectancy and affects people in the short-term, particularly asthma sufferers; people with respiratory diseases or other ailments and can lead to increased hospital admissions for patients with lung and heart disease.

“ Today, we urge people across Scotland to consider giving up their private car, particularly for shorter, polluting trips such as the school run or to the supermarket and consider cycling or walking instead. “