Long-delayed asbestos report does not go far enough, campaigners warn

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Photo: iStock

Ministers bowed to pressure from campaigners and teachers' leaders last week and finally published their long-awaited report into asbestos management in schools – eight months later than originally scheduled.

The Department for Education (DfE) had come under increasing fire from campaigning groups and the unions after apparently stalling attempts to release the report, entitled The Management of Asbestos in Schools.

Asked during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday (March 11) when the findings would be released, David Cameron replied "in due course".

But just a day later the DfE published the report, which called for greater transparency from schools and local authorities about how asbestos is managed.

The review heard evidence that the amount of asbestos in UK schools is among the worst in the world. One of the reasons for this is because Britain imported more amosite, which was used in walls, ceilings and in window and door frames. This was vulnerable to damage and the emission of particles into the air.

The DfE estimates that about three-quarters of schools contain asbestos to varying levels, but the actual proportion is thought to be much higher. The report said that revised asbestos guidance would be issued and that special training would be put in place for teachers and support staff.

Measures will also be introduced to determine whether schools are managing their asbestos effectively. A further study will be undertaken in 50 schools to assess the levels of asbestos fibres in classrooms and other areas. However, the report contains no long-term strategy for asbestos removal from schools.

Michael Lees from the Asbestos in Schools campaign group said: "(The report) is a positive step forward and makes a number of constructive proposals and concessions that previously had not been publicly made.

"The Department for Education acknowledges that children are more at risk from asbestos exposure than adults and that school staff and former pupils have died from their asbestos exposure at school. They state that asbestos will be removed when schools are refurbished under the Priority School Building Programme.

"However, there is a lack of vision and the government has failed to introduce the fundamental long-term strategies that are needed to eventually eradicate the problem of asbestos from our schools. The report acknowledges there is a problem of asbestos in schools, but it has been selective in its choice of evidence and has failed to acknowledge the extensive and authoritative evidence spanning some 50 years that proves there is a serious problem.

"At times the report is not impartial and conceals difficult issues rather than addressing them. As a result present policies have been tweaked but only a few concrete proposals made."

Mr Lees added that the government remained unaware of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools and "the review has made no attempt to remedy this".

A separate two-year study into the condition of school buildings, completed recently, excluded asbestos.

"This is irrational as asbestos can be one of the most expensive items when maintaining, refurbishing or demolishing a school," Mr Lees added. "By excluding it, schools with the most dangerous materials cannot be identified, priorities cannot be set and any financial forecasts will be meaningless."

The asbestos report acknowledged that school teachers and support staff are dying of mesothelioma. More than 150 school teachers have died in the last 10 years and 291 have died since 1980.

However, Mr Lees claimed that the DfE had failed to take note of inquest findings and its report implies that some asbestos exposure may not have taken place in schools, for which there was no evidence.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the report was "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," she said. "There is no change to the overall view that schools are low risk, despite the report highlighting that between 2003 and 2012, 224 teachers died of mesothelioma. It is astonishing that there is also no mention that inevitably some adults are dying as a result of childhood exposure at school.

A DfE spokesperson said: "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."

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