Academic Performance: A Matter Of Location, Location, Location
Concerned parents must take concerted action to minimise their children’s exposure to pollution.

The art and science of augmenting academic performance has prima facie never been more respected. Governments – whose policies are under ever-increasing scrutiny thanks to comparative indices produced by the likes of the OECD's oft-cited Programme for International Student Assessment ('PISA') – are becoming open to revising their curricula in fundamental and unprecedented ways. In cities from Sao Paulo to Tokyo, students dutifully attend cram schools, hire personal tutors and purchase revision guides. And their parents – who are at least on some level acutely aware of the damage that a second-rate education can wreak on their children's life outcomes – are often only too happy to open their chequebooks to pay for these vital educational aids.

But take a closer look, and you will see that none of these steps – while doubtless commendable and necessary – are anything other than obvious and unremarkable. Indeed, in a twenty-first century of deep and wide globalisation, it would be amazing if British schools did not import Chinese teaching styles and vice-versa; if teenagers failed to seek supplementary assistance in subjects they find particularly challenging; or if their parents, who have seen an education-contingent chasm in career opportunities, incomes and wealth open up before their eyes, did not devote substantial resources to protecting the people they love the most in the world from the vagaries of a brutal and unforgiving economy.

However, these measures are not enough – not by a distance. In part, this is because they are too commonplace to produce unique differentiations in academic performance. If you live in a country where a significant slice of the GDP is accounted for by the economic activities of private after-school tuition facilities – Turkey, with its dershane (lit. 'lesson-house') culture, comes to mind – then enrolment at one of these establishments is taken for granted. Moreover, the option of paying extra to attend a purportedly better facility is no secret – many thousands of other students will do precisely this, and with more or less the exact same aim in mind.

Additionally, we live in a world where the difference between success and failure is often razor-thin. In their classic management tome Funky Business: Talent Makes Capital Dance, Jonas Ridderstråle and Kjell Nordström note that if Swedish athletes competing at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan had improved their performance by just 5%, they would have won practically every event going – instead of placing seventeenth, with nary a gold medal in sight.

In this context, it makes perfect sense for parents to focus on giving their children virtually unique advantages by paying attention to often-ignored factors which nevertheless can make a big difference when it comes to academic scores. And one of these factors is the level of environmental pollution that their offspring are exposed to. A paper published in the Max 2017 issue of the journal Neurotoxicology found that there were negative and academically consequential short-term neurological behaviours in four-to-nine-year-olds exposed to a certain level of pesticides from merely living in an agricultural community; similarly, an Italian study from a 2016 issue of Epidemiology determined associations between pollutants, traffic intensity near the family home, and poorer results in standardised IQ tests.   

Armed with this information, there are numerous initiatives which parents can undertake to minimise their children's exposure to pollution. Spending more time in pristine nature may be one. Campaigning for the reorganisation or even re-siting of local schools to combat the cognitive impairments from agrochemicals and/or exhaust fumes is another. Lobbying to make easy cycling and low-pollution public transportation access to educational facilities a default public is yet another. The only thing that is not an option for any ambitious and caring mother or father is inaction.