Heatwaves in schools: What are the rules schools have to follow - and should parents pack sun cream?

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Students will be feeling the heat in classrooms this week 🥵
  • There is currently no legal maximum working temperature for schools
  • There are, however, a number of laws and government guidelines schools must follow to protect pupils
  • Schools don’t have to let students have drink bottles in the classroom or sunscreen at school
  • Parents should keep in touch with school leadership about making school rule exceptions
  • They should also make sure their kids know what to do when it’s hot

Children in classrooms have little agency over their own behaviour, even on hot days when it’s especially vital that they keep themselves safe and cool.

Summer has finally hit the UK in full force this week, with temperatures in the high 20s across much of the country - and even creeping towards 30 in some places. A four-day heat health alert is also in force, warning Brits to take extra care to try and steer clear of the often dangerous consequences of overheating.

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But what are schools legally required to do to protect their pupils when the temperatures start to become extreme? And with the rules frequently left up to school leadership, is there anything parents at home can do to help? Here’s everything you need to know:

Schools are not legally required to let children have water bottles during class, nor to bring sunscreen to school (Photo: NationalWorld/Getty Images/Adobe Stock)Schools are not legally required to let children have water bottles during class, nor to bring sunscreen to school (Photo: NationalWorld/Getty Images/Adobe Stock)
Schools are not legally required to let children have water bottles during class, nor to bring sunscreen to school (Photo: NationalWorld/Getty Images/Adobe Stock)

What rules do schools have to follow in extreme heat?

According to the National Education Union, people work best at temperatures between 16 and 24C - and it recommends classrooms are kept below 26C so children can focus on their work and avoid heat stress. However, just like in offices there are no specific maximum temperatures for schools set out in law. But this doesn’t mean that students have no protection.

There are several pieces of legislation that apply to schools, including the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, which require working temperatures to be kept at a “reasonable” level - and for schools to protect students from excessive heat. Inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) - which also has its own code of practice for schools and workplaces - can issue notices to legally force schools to meet these legal requirements.

The HSE code of practice says schools need to have fresh air flow, so when it’s hot windows will need to be opened. If they can’t be, the school needs to have some kind of artificial ventilation, like air conditioning. Shade should also be provided by using window blinds if it’s extremely bright or sunny, and schools also need to consider special measures like electric fans or portable air cooling equipment if conditions become extreme. 

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They need to take action as soon as students or staff complain that working conditions are becoming unreasonable, but the NEU says schools should also prepare themselves based on the weather forecast.

What are schools advised to do - even if they’re not legally required to?

As there is no legal upper temperature limit for schools, your child’s school does not legally need to close if it gets too hot. This also means you’re not really supposed to keep them home from school just because the mercury’s rising. However, headteachers can choose to temporarily close the school if they consider the heat is becoming a risk to student safety.

Contrary to popular belief, although in general children need to have access to water while in school, schools are not legally required to let students have water bottles or drink in classrooms. However, this is something the NEU disagrees with. Schools are also not required to loosen their uniform rules, but official government guidance from the Department for Education encourages them to do both - especially if it reaches heatwave conditions.

Some schools also don’t allow students to bring in sunscreen, national accreditation service Sun Safe Schools says. When they do, teachers often won’t help children to put it on - even less-abled children - either due to having little time, or out of concern about child abuse allegations. On this, HSE says that health and safety legislation “does not prevent school staff from applying or helping pupils apply sun cream” - and the Department for Education also makes it clear that schools are expected to take a “sensible approach” to the issue.

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The Department for education also recommends a number of other hot weather adjustments, including adjusting lesson plans so children don’t have to take part in vigorous activities on hot days; opening windows before kids arrive to release hot air built up overnight; not leaving electronics in ‘standby mode’ as this creates heat; and using fans to increase air movement if temperatures are below 35C.

Classrooms legally need to have adequate ventilation (Photo: Yorkshire Post)Classrooms legally need to have adequate ventilation (Photo: Yorkshire Post)
Classrooms legally need to have adequate ventilation (Photo: Yorkshire Post)

What can (and should) parents do to help kids beat the heat?

Make sure you send your child to school with a full water bottle do they can remain hydrated. If your child’s school prefers water bottles be kept out of classrooms generally, check with teachers and school leadership about making a temporary exception when the weather is hot.

Packing plenty of fresh fruits and veggies in their school lunch can also help students stay hydrated - and if you use a thermal lunch box or cooling gel backs, they can be a welcome treat on a hot day.

If your child will be playing outside, you should make sure they bring an approved, wide-brimmed sunhat and apply a high SPF sunscreen before they head off to school. To protect their skin from burning this should ideally be reapplied every two hours or before they go outside. Again, it’s worth checking in with teachers about making exceptions so your child can bring sun cream to school with them.

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Make sure to talk to your child about drinking enough water and taking off their jerseys or blazers in class. You should also make sure they know to let their teacher know immediately if they start to feel too hot, dizzy or unwell at all, so they can get immediate help if they start suffering from heat exhaustion or other heat-related conditions.

If you have concerns about hot classrooms not being managed properly and you’ve already tried talking to the school, parents can follow the school’s complaints procedure to make a formal complaint. All schools should have one, whether state or private, with details available on the school website. You can also contact HSE to report a health and safety issue using their online web portal here.

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