Government urged to remove all asbestos from schools to prevent unnecessary deaths

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The Government’s failure to manage asbestos in schools is putting children and teaching staff at needless risk, warn campaigners and unions.

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The FOI request revealed 54 incidents of exposure to asbestos in academy schools

Figures released today by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) in conjunction with asbestos in schools’ campaigner Lucie Stephens and MP Rachel Reeves, chair of the Asbestos in Schools group, reveal huge disparities in asbestos management across Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) – groups of academies governed by the same group of directors.

The JUAC, whose members include the eight teaching unions, sent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to 1,280 MATs last year asking about the presence and management of asbestos within their academies. A total of 442 MATs responded. Within these MATS, 1,863 academies were reported to have asbestos present.

The responses from the MATs showed 54 incidents of asbestos exposure within academies had been reported, often because previously unknown asbestos was discovered. Exposure to asbestos can cause a number of diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer.

Examples of the 54 incidents reported include:

  • Asbestos identified under the carpet in a classroom;
  • asbestos identified in the ceiling of an IT suite;
  • removal of toilets in a children’s centre, which disturbed suspected asbestos;
  • asbestos found when digging out a new car park.

Despite the high number of exposure incidents reported, only five MATs said they had been issued an improvement or prohibition notice by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in relation to asbestos management.

The JUAC, campaigner Lucie Stephens and MP Rachel Reeves say the findings are likely to be a ‘significant underestimate’ as not all MATs responded to the FOI request, some refused to provide information or provided incomplete responses.

Their research also revealed that despite being the asbestos duty holder, many MATs did not hold information about asbestos management and audits centrally and had to request it from individual academies.

Some MATs did not have asbestos management plans in place for their academies, despite it being a legal requirement, and many were not auditing the plans on an annual basis.

The JUAC, Lucie Stephens, and MP Rachel Reeves argue that the data reinforces the need for the Department for Education to maintain a central database of the location and condition of all asbestos in schools. They say that this information should then be used to inform a phased removal of all asbestos in schools and academies, starting with the most dangerous first, to prevent teachers, school staff and former pupils dying each year because of exposure to the substance.

They went on to state, 'The continuing presence of asbestos in schools and academies is a national scandal, which is putting the lives of pupils and staff at risk.'

According to the JUAC, nearly 90 per cent of all schools contain asbestos, presenting a ‘serious risk’ to the children and staff that occupy the buildings. They say that school staff are increasingly dying from mesothelioma, with teachers dying at an average of 17 per year, up from three per year in 1980. It is also estimated that around 200-300 adults die each year because they were exposed to asbestos as a pupil.

Rachel Reeves MP, chair of the Asbestos in Schools Group, said, ‘The Government's failure to get a grip of this issue is putting children and teaching staff at needless risk. These latest findings show that many schools are unaware of the risk or the extent of asbestos in our schools. The Government needs to come up with a clear strategy to ensure any potential exposure to asbestos is minimised and that staff and pupils are kept safe. Parents and teachers have been left in the dark for too long about the extent of the problem. Labour committed to a phased removal of asbestos in schools in our 2017 manifesto. How many more teachers and pupils' lives have to be put in jeopardy before the Government commits to tackling this ticking time bomb?’

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, a member of the JUAC, said, ‘It is disgraceful that school staff and former pupils continue to die because they were exposed to asbestos in our schools. These findings show that the Government’s policy of leaving asbestos in situ is not working.

‘When questioned by the Public Accounts Committee, the Government said information about asbestos should be freely available locally, but we know this isn’t happening. Our survey last year found that 50 per cent of teachers had not been told whether their school contained asbestos, and only 2 per cent of parents had been given this information. We need a culture of openness around asbestos in schools.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'We expect all local authorities and academy trusts to have robust plans in place to safely manage asbestos in buildings, and provide detailed guidance for them on doing so. We have recently launched a new Asbestos Management Assurance Process to ensure they are following these requirements.

'We have also invested £5.6billion in the maintenance of school buildings, including removing or encapsulating asbestos when it is the safest course of action to do so.'

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