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‘There’s a need for creating education leadership that is conscious and aware of IEQ’

Dr Farooq Wasil, a published author, is the CEO of Goldline Education. His career in education spans over 30 years. In this exclusive interview, he shares with Fatima de la Cerna of Climate Control Middle East his insights on the importance of cultivating environment literacy among education leaders in the GCC region.

| | Oct 13, 2015 | 2:45 pm
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Dr Farooq Wasil, CEO of Goldline Education

Dr Farooq Wasil, CEO of Goldline Education

As a veteran in the field of education, how would you assess the current state of schools in the UAE, in terms of the quality of their indoor environments?

In the last 10 years, we have seen growth in the education sector, with quality schools being built and regulatory framework being developed – a framework that looks at schools more closely. KHDA, for example, has been working on rolling out good schools, but its focus is definitely on the quality of teaching and learning.

I think UAE schools, in general, follow regular building codes and whatever specifications relevant to school buildings, though there’s no specific attention given to indoor environments. The new schools that have come up, however, should be conforming to at least minimum standards of IEQ. And I believe they can be properly governed through strict IEQ audits.

Based on your observation, what would you say is keeping IEQ from being a priority for schools in the country?

There are many factors; one is the parents themselves. This is actually no longer as true now as it was before, but parents, when they visit schools, their interest is limited to collecting their children’s report cards and meeting the teachers. How many parents would think to check the noise levels in classrooms? In corridors? If parents were more discerning, they would also be concerned about the wellbeing of their children. They would be more informed. They would understand that things like lighting and noise have an impact on their children’s welfare and growth. They would also evaluate schools according to their facilities, the quality of their learning spaces. When they visit their kids’ schools, parents should, therefore, check how comfortable their children are. If they did, they would become participants and partners in the evolution of schools.

What about teachers and school administrations? Are they also factors influencing the current state of IEQ in schools? I ask this because, while attending an education-related event, I heard one of the principals proclaiming that air conditioning problems in his classrooms were not his concern.

We can’t blame him for saying that, and let me tell you why. Indoor environments are highly complex – we’re talking about temperature, humidity, noise, ventilation, air quality and lighting. And building occupants are exposed to a variety of contaminants in the form of gases, chemicals and microbes. IEQ is about many things. How many people understand the whole concept of internal environments?

Like I said, we can’t blame him – unless we take ownership of creating awareness. Environment literacy must then become mandatory for both teachers and school leaders. Teachers should be made aware of what comprises good IEQ, because they have to be facilitators. There has to be a minimum IEQ checklist as part of the school programme, so they’ll understand what elements make up good IEQ. At present, when teachers go to class, do they have a sense of what good lighting is all about? Do they have a measuring yard to understand if their current lighting is good for the students or if it’s affecting their ability to learn? Do they measure the quality of noise inside and outside the classroom? The same thing is true for principals and other school administrators.

We must recognise that there’s a need for creating education leadership that is conscious and aware of IEQ. We need to guide our educators, maybe even produce a training module on the topic. In fact, educators should be given bigger participation in the design process.

Are you referring to the design of the school buildings themselves?

Yes, because, as an educator, I believe that to be able to design effective schools, one has to create, among education leaders and everyone else involved in the provision of education, as well as among developers and investors, heightened awareness and better understanding of external and internal environments. After all, we’re not talking about ordinary buildings. It’s about children, and in their formative years, their mental and physical health should go hand-in-hand. There is no room for compromise, because their physical well-being will ensure their mental well-being.

With internal environments having a bearing on the health of students and their academic performance, we are looking at three levels of intervention. One is a regulatory framework on IEQ. Another is the promotion of environment literacy among educators and education providers – literacy that can translate into action. And third, education for investors interested in the education sector. There has to be a stronger push for environmental education.

What would you propose the sector needs to do, other than to develop environment literacy among teachers, school administrators and other stakeholders, to promote better IEQ?

This country has the benefit of being very new, in terms of infrastructure, and it is doing phenomenally well. It’s on the world map and is being talked about. Its architectural marvels are a visual treat, and so much energy and vision have been translated into some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. In that sense, there’s more opportunity to accommodate and pursue the concept of IEQ, unlike in other countries, where the construction and architecture scenes are so saturated, development moves at a very slow pace.

Here, in the UAE, so many things are changing. We have communities and landscapes changing, making it a great time to push for better IEQ; time to incorporate all those elements into our education system and engage with people who are champions of creating greater [environment] literacy and understanding of environmental hazards; and time to bring all the stakeholders together on a thinking platform, so that together they can identify what IEQ means for an education leader and for a teacher, and determine how students see it and how parents and regulators would like to see it.

We can create healthy environments, both indoor and outdoor, and this country will become a leader for other countries. To achieve that, we need to look at global examples and emulate best practices, to look at good schools that have been rolled out and make them a case study – to make people understand what good IEQ looks like. It is learning by experience and through example, because understanding of the environment is a continuous process, an evolving process.

We ought to also look at international standards and design models and assess if we need to contextualise and tweak them according to our geographical conditions. Take India as an example. I was there to look at school projects across the country, and we had to recognise that India has four ecological zones, which means we needed to roll out design elements that would fit each zone. If you go up deep north, for instance, you’ll have winter, so the design of the building has to offer sufficient heating and insulation for children, for about five or six months. And in another ecological zone, you’ll have to deal with very high temperatures. What do you do? You cannot introduce one standard design. You have to customise them to the local environment.

Later on, when we started designing the templates of the schools, the environment in the region was the ultimate consideration.

Speaking of India, could you share your insights on the IEQ situation in its schools?

India is a country where education is still a challenge, in the sense that its infrastructure and resources are still inadequate. In some cases, schools are nothing but four walls; although, at least now, the country’s schools have toilets. You can probably imagine how bad it was before. But yes, it continues to be a struggle to achieve the basic education tasks of giving students even rudimentary education and creating good schools. Good schools are, after all, a function of multiples: resources, design, infrastructure, etc.

The thing about India and other countries that have gone through similar struggles is, you cannot correct a mess that’s historical. You have challenges of economy and personnel, challenges of training and skill sets, but those should not stop you from going forward. And today, people are becoming more resilient and the economy is becoming better. We can, therefore, urge new-generation schools in India to push for regulations on the health of indoor environments. They must recognise IEQ elements and how they impact the safety and development of students.

I am in the process of completing a book on how to design a school, and I think the topic holds a lot of relevance to India. There are many investors who want to invest in schools, but they see them as just another group of buildings. I want to help them – maybe this book can help them, in terms of getting them to sit together and look at what good design looks like, to think of design in the 21st century, where the physical walls will not define the structures.

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