Pressure building over asbestos in schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The pressure on ministers to act over asbestos in schools continues to build after Freedom of Information requests reveal the huge amounts in compensation being paid by local authorities. Pete Henshaw reports

More than £10 million has been paid out in compensation by local authorities because of asbestos exposure in schools, it has been revealed.
The payments have been made to 220 former pupils, school employees, and former employees.

The figures have come to light following Freedom of Information requests submitted by asbestos campaigner Lucie Stephens, whose mother was a teacher for 30 years and died of mesothelioma – the asbestos-related cancer – in June.

The data also shows that there were 99 reported incidents of asbestos exposure in schools between 2011 and 2016, although campaigners say this is likely to be a “massive understatement” given that these are incidents of known exposure.

The figures show that within the 135 local authorities (out of 173 in England and Wales) that responded to the FoI requests, there are 12,600 schools where asbestos is known to be present.

Again, this figure will in reality be much higher, as it doesn’t include schools that have become academies. The accepted figure is that around 85 per cent of UK schools contain asbestos in some form.

More than 224 teachers in England died from mesothelioma between 2003 and 2012. However, last year alone 22 teachers died and experts have previously raised concerns that death rates will increase.

In 2013, government advisors warned that children are more at risk from asbestos exposure than adults and MPs on the Education Select Committee have previously heard evidence that as many as 300 people a year could now be dying because of exposure during their time at school.

The government has a policy of managing asbestos in schools in situ rather than automatically removing the deadly material. It also says that it has invested £23 billion into school buildings up until 2021.

However, Ms Stephens wants the Department for Education (DfE) to adopt a policy of phased asbestos removal and says that potential exposure of children at school must be recorded and parents informed.

She has launched an online petition calling on the DfE to introduce these policies, and has seen more than 10,000 signatories so far.

On the petition website, she said: “Parents have been kept in the dark about asbestos risks for too long. We want every school in the UK to have to produce an annual report about the type and condition of any asbestos on the premises and share this with all parents and staff. Every child’s potential exposure to asbestos at school must be recorded and shared with parents. This has been happening in the USA for the last 30 years.

“The government must introduce and implement a policy for the phased removal of all asbestos from schools to be completed by 2028, starting with the most dangerous asbestos. MPs (on the Education Select Committee) recommended this in 2012 but no action has been taken.”

Commenting on the findings, John McLean, chair of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) and secretariat of the Asbestos in Schools campaign group, said: “What this information reveals is that the government’s policy of managing asbestos in schools is simply not working and is putting children and staff at risk. We call upon the government to undertake a national audit of asbestos in schools, set out a long-term strategy for the removal of asbestos from schools, and ensure that the Health and Safety Executive has the funding it needs to inspect schools.”

You can find Ms Stephens’ petition online at https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/protect-our-children-and-teachers-from-asbestos-exposure-in-schools


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