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(Part of "Asbestos Policy Suggested Improvements")

British Policy to Rely on Flawed System of Asbestos Management

The Government the HSE and the DfES agree that a significant minority of schools are not managing their asbestos. They also have a policy to leave asbestos in place and to manage it. Management they consider is safer than removal and they make no exception for schools. This policy was underlined by the Secretary of State for Schools who stated to the NUT that:

“Whilst respecting your view, we would hope to persuade you that this current policy of the NUT is not the best way forward. …
Removal creates its own risks; particularly to those removing it…
It is probably better and safer to leave it in place and manage it.” (13)

In contrast, Ireland and the teaching unions consider that removal is the best long term option, and the only safe one.

Leaving Asbestos in Place is only an Option if it is Effectively Managed, and if the Management is Effectively Monitored

If asbestos is removed completely then there is no need to implement a system of management. However if it is left in situ then it has to be managed to prevent damage and release of fibres. The system of management has to be effective and it has to be regularly revised and updated. Schools have to be monitored to ensure that they are following best practice. Unless the system is fail safe it is inevitable that over time an inadequate system will fail and exposures will take place.

In America a considerable amount of asbestos remains in their schools. Since 1982 there have been laws that have required schools to identify the extent, location and type of their asbestos and then manage it. Priorities were made, and resources were allocated in proportion to the risk. A system of monitoring was devised to ensure that best practice was being followed. Training and guidance is given and regularly updated. A policy of openness ensures that parents and teachers are aware of the standards of management in their own schools. The policy has been vigorously pursued and any school failing to follow the guidance has been heavily fined. Because there is an effective system of management, asbestos can remain in situ and parents and teachers can have the confidence that it is being safely managed.

In Britain the Government have not devoted sufficient resources to ensure that schools identify their asbestos and implement effective asbestos management systems. They have neither given adequate training and guidance nor have they adequately monitored whether schools are following best practice.

America has policies and laws that enable the management of asbestos to be an option. In contrast Britain does not have the policies, the supervisory and enforcement regime, the openness or the resources to ensure that leaving asbestos in place and managing it is a safe option. It will take a fundamental change in policies and priorities and considerable additional resources to make it so.

(A comparison between the policies of America and Great Britain concerning asbestos in schools is in the annex)

Asbestos Removal from Schools

If asbestos is managed effectively then leaving it in situ is an option, however if the system of management is inadequate then a safer option is removal. This policy is advocated by Ireland and the teaching unions.

Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland consider that a school is a special place and therefore has to be treated differently from normal commercial premises. They have announced that they will refurbish every school. One of the reasons for this decision was that they recognised that children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of asbestos,(14) and the stated priorities are :

“The priorities for major works within the building programme are clear. We must respond to the need for schools in rapidly developing areas, to the particular needs of schools in areas of social disadvantage, and school buildings the condition of which give rise to health and safety concerns.” (15)

A major part of the initiative is the Schools’ Asbestos Remediation Programme. The Office of Public Works (OPW) has been surveying all of the nations schools to identify the asbestos. The Irish Government’s asbestos briefing document states in relation to schools:

“Based on risk assessments and the result of surveys done by asbestos professionals, it (OPW) is making decisions on how and when the asbestos needs to be removed. It is important to remember that if asbestos is in good condition, it poses no threat to health, but because of the proximity of children to this material, the decision is being made to remove asbestos, even if this would not normally be considered necessary.” (16)

Great Britain

Removal Advocated by Teaching Unions

The teaching unions strongly advocate the total removal of asbestos as a school is a very different place from an office or a factory, because it contains children.(17) Their safety is of paramount importance and a higher duty of care is imposed on those in authority to implement effective measures to ensure their safety. A school is also different because, even if asbestos is well managed, it is inevitable that it will become damaged through, vandalism, accidents, above normal wear and tear and children’s curiosity. Children are also more susceptible to developing asbestos disease than adults.

Government Missing Opportunity to Permanently Remove Threat of Asbestos

The HSE’s Acting Chief Executive has identified the ‘Building Schools for the Future Initiative’ (BSF) as contributing towards reducing asbestos exposures in schools.(18) This Government and DfES initiative proposes to rebuilt or refurbish every secondary school and half of the primary schools over the course of the next 15 years. (19)

The Secretary of State for Schools has made it clear that the Government, HSE and DfES oppose the removal of asbestos and consider that it is “Better and safer to leave it in place and manage it.” Leaving asbestos in place during refurbishment is a short term expedient, for any asbestos left in situ will always have to be managed. The Minister’s opposition to removal seems an unnecessary stand when the BSF initiative creates an opportunity to address the asbestos problem permanently. It would seem more logical for the Minister to grasp the opportunity and to wholeheartedly support the removal of all asbestos.

The Schools Minister has not based the priority for rebuilding or refurbishment on the schools with the worst asbestos problem.(20) It is based instead on standards of social depravation and educational needs, being scored on GCSE passes and eligibility for free school meals.(21) This means that schools with the worst asbestos problems have no particular priority and may be refurbished or rebuilt last – or may be such a low priority that their asbestos problem is not addressed at all.

Presently the initiative is not being put into action as rapidly or as widely as initially envisaged. The method of raising the necessary funds and the availability of the funds is being questioned both in Parliament and by the teaching unions.(22) The cost of the scheme has already started to rise, partially because in the first schools to be refurbished asbestos is being found in greater quantities than originally envisaged, causing disturbance and an unforeseen level of risk to all involved, and considerable additional costs. (23)

As there are limited funds and predetermined targets it means that priorities well might be given to those schools that can be built or refurbished on target, on time and within budget. Consequently the schools with the worst asbestos problems may be pushed to the back of the queue.

Please could I ask that you request the Minister to:

 Assess which schools have the worst asbestos problem.
 Then give those with the worst problem the greatest priority in refurbishing and rebuilding.
 Insist that those that are to be refurbished have all of their asbestos removed.

Whether the initiative succeeds or not many schools will have to continue managing their asbestos until 2020 and beyond. In addition those that are purely being refurbished will still have to manage their asbestos unless it is completely removed.

The BSF does not encompass the independent sector, and that includes many infant and nursery schools. They will either have to find the funds for asbestos removal or rebuild, or they will have to continue managing their asbestos for the foreseeable future. This is of concern as independent schools have been found to be particularly bad at managing their asbestos.(24) They retain their legal right to secrecy over asbestos management; there is no public or ministerial pressure to improve management or spend money on capital investment. It is, in fact, in their commercial and legal interests to avoid identifying asbestos on their premises, to avoid telling parents, teachers or children about asbestos and thereby avoiding any pressure to spend money on rebuilds or refurbishment. The Minister should use openness in the public sector as a method of applying pressure on the independent sector, and as part of this should consider removing their legal right to secrecy.

The BSF initiative will only succeed in making schools safe from asbestos if Government and DfES policies and priorities change. If policies are not changed asbestos will be left in place after schools have been refurbished. For those schools, and for every other school that contains asbestos, effective asbestos management systems must be put in place now, and a workable system to monitor standards has to be rapidly devised. Only then will every school follow best practice and manage their asbestos safely


For many years America has had a pro-active and effective policy towards asbestos in schools and has made laws and put resources into ensuring that the management of asbestos in their schools can be an option. In Britain managing asbestos in schools has frequently not worked, and will never work unless sufficient resources are devoted to ensuring that it does, and yet the Government, the DfES and HSE continue to advocate that it is the safest option. Ireland and the teaching unions are more realistic and realise that a school has to be treated differently from normal commercial premises. Because of the inadequacies of the present system it is understandable that they advocate removal as the only safe option.


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