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Asbestos in Schools

Pressure builds to clear all asbestos from schools - 05 Feb 2009

(5 Feb 2009)

Chris Parr
Schools across England should have all asbestos removed as part of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) scheme, a leading campaigner has said.

Michael Lees, whose wife – a teacher – died from asbestos-caused mesothelioma after being exposed to the deadly substance at school, says that the rebuilding and refurbishing project is a “massive opportunity” to begin removing asbestos. Mr Lees said: “The current policy on asbestos states that if it is well managed, and in good condition, then it is not a danger to pupils or teachers. This is simply not true. Asbestos is always at risk of becoming damaged – particularly in a school where there are sometimes thousands of people moving around inside the same building. I have been to schools which have been praised for the way they manage their asbestos, and yet have found that they simply do not know where it can be found, and how to ensure it is safe. Only by removing it all can we ensure that pupils and staff are not exposed.”

BSF will see every single UK secondary school rebuilt or refurbished, and while Mr Lees acknowledges that removing all asbestos from schools will take a long time, he says it makes “perfect sense” to use the levels of asbestos in buildings as a way of prioritising the order in which schools enter the BSF programme.

The call comes after figures emerged about the number of schools that contain asbestos.

In Kent, an audit revealed that 554 of 599 schools contained the substance, while in Greater Manchester the figure is 903 out of 1,043 schools.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT union, agreed that asbestos levels should be included in the criteria for assessing when schools enter BSF, but stopped short of saying that this should be the main determining factor. She said: “Unless asbestos is damaged or at risk of damage, and is correctly managed, then there is no risk to students.“Schools with no asbestos, but which have a poor general overall condition – damaged roofs, and so on – should get funding more quickly than schools in a good condition that have well-managed asbestos.”

However, Hank Roberts, lead member for health and safety at the Association for Teachers and Lecturers, disagrees. He told SecEd: “It is outrageous that asbestos removal is not a core part of the BSF programme. No-one can deny that it is highly dangerous.“Saying that if it is well managed then it is safe is also wide of the mark. What happens if fire breaks out, if there is a flood, or other accidental damage? ”He added: “First of all we need a national audit of asbestos in all UK schools so that we can use the data to ensure it is removed as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, I think the cost of doing the removal work will mean that this doesn’t happen without a huge campaign. The deaths are continuing, and still the denial continues. We have to face facts that the removal of asbestos will cost a lot of money, but the long-term costs are far higher.”

This week, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and the Health and Safety Executive took what is being viewed by campaigners as the first step towards a national audit of asbestos in schools. A survey was sent to all local authorities in England to “raise awareness about the duty to manage” the substance, and to glean information on asbestos levels. However, David Brierley, solicitor for the Voice union, warned that this would not offer sufficient information to incorporate asbestos removal into the BSF programme. He said: “Until there is a national assessment of the extent of the asbestos problem in schools, it will be impossible to allocate resources proportionate to the risks either at national or local level. Clearly there has to be a comprehensive audit of all schools.”

A DCSF spokesman told SecEd: “BSF funding is allocated on the basis of educational and social need and the readiness of a local authority to deliver these big programmes. “It would seem bizarre to prioritise areas simply because they had asbestos in their schools – the bottom line is that local authorities and schools already have a legal duty to comply with the law on managing asbestos.”

Chris Parr

• SecEd is organising a conference on asbestos in schools on March 12 in London. For full details, see page 18.