Government's schools asbestos review 'lacks long-term strategies'

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While the Government's review of asbestos policy in schools has been welcomed, unions and campaigners say it does not go far enough to prevent future deaths.

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Teaching unions and campaigners claim the Government's asbestos in schools review doesn't go far enough

Yesterday, the Department for Education published its review into asbestos policy in schools, eight months later than expected, following pressure from unions and MPs.

New DfE guidance for schools and local authorities will also be published to reflect the review.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Asbestos in Schools campaign group said that the report makes a number of constructive proposals - including better training and guidance for school staff on asbestos and a focus on transparency and accountability of school duty holders. However, they claimed that the DfE has failed to introduce any long-term strategies to remove asbestos from schools.

The report states that asbestos will be removed from schools when they are refurbished under the Priority Schools Building Programme.

Asbestos was used in buildings from the 1950s until 1999, when it was banned.

The Asbestos in Schools campaign group also claimed that despite the report’s acknowledgment that former pupils and school staff have died because of their asbestos exposure at school, it failed to estimate the numbers who will die in the future.

According to Michael Lees, founder of the campaign group and member of the joint Union Asbestos Committee, 158 school teachers have died in the last ten years from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, and 291 since 1980. He estimates that over a 20-year period between 4,000 and 6,000 people could die.

He said, ‘What the evidence fails to include is that between 200 and 300 people could die each year from their asbestos exposure as a child at school in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘Most of the asbestos remains in schools, and there is evidence the exposures continue.’

The NUT echoed Mr Lees’ comments.

General secretary Christine Blower said, ‘The report is a step in the right direction, but no more. 

‘It comprehensively fails to set out a long-term strategy for phased removal of asbestos from our schools and there is no change to the overall view that schools are low-risk.’

Another criticism of the report is that it does not include up-to-date information of the extent to which schools across the country contain asbestos.

In the past, the DfE has said that more than 75 per cent of schools contain asbestos. However, the report states that the ‘majority’ of schools contain the toxic substance.

A Freedom of Information request by the Asbestos in Schools campaign group suggests that 86 per cent of schools across the UK and Ireland contain asbestos. Their figure is based on the responses of 177 local authorities.

The group has called for the Government to carry out an audit to determine the scale of the problem, something which it continues to demand as the information has not been included within the new report nor the DfE’s property data survey – published last month.

Mr Lees said, ‘The Government is unaware of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in our schools and the review has made no attempt to remedy this. 

'The report insinuates that there is a problem of asbestos in schools, but it has been selective in its choice of evidence and failed to acknowledge the extensive and authoritative evidence spanning some 50 years that proves there is a serious problem.

‘Evidence was given to the review that the incidence of mesothelioma, a type of cancer that can be caused by direct contact of asbestos fibres, in Britain is by far the worst in the world and that is because we imported more amosite. Amosite was used extensively in the walls, ceilings, heaters, windows and door surrounds of thousands of schools and is vulnerable to damage from children.’

Mr Lees added, ‘The Government have finally, and publicly, acknowledged that there is a problem and this review provides a starting platform on which to build future policy.’

The NUT also said that it will continue to challenge political parties in the run up to the general election to set out how they intend to deal with the problem.

A DfE spokesperson said, ‘Nothing is more important than the health and safety of children and staff in our schools. Our review, which has involved extensive consultation with experts and stakeholders, provides us with the information we need to ensure those responsible for managing asbestos in schools are equipped to do so effectively.

‘We have already invested billions to improve the condition of the school estate, and announced further significant investment over the next Parliament, helping to ensure asbestos is managed safely and that the amount of asbestos in school buildings continues to reduce over time. 

‘We have also announced new measures to manage asbestos in schools including updated guidance and enhanced scrutiny of those responsible for managing asbestos, while continuing to fund its management and its removal where needed.’

Measures outlined in the Government's review

  • There will be increased scrutiny on duty holders to ensure that asbestos management remains a priority in schools;
  • Department for Education guidance will be improved so all duty holders are clear what they need to do to keep their staff and pupils from asbestos exposure;
  • there will be a new requirement for duty holders to provide a regular report to the Education Funding Agency (EFA) about their management of asbestos;
  • all teachers and support staff must receive asbestos training;
  • funding will continue to be available to schools under the Priority for School Building Programme. Under the programme any asbestos present in the school building will be removed.
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