Asbestos policy 'is not working', as teachers left in the dark about whether their classrooms contain the deadly material

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Photo: iStock

The policy of managing asbestos-containing materials in schools is not working, with many teachers in the dark about whether the deadly substance is present in their classrooms.

The warning has come from the National Union of Teachers, which at its annual conference in Harrogate renewed calls for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools.

It is thought asbestos is present in well over 75 per cent of schools but a recent government review refused to change its existing policy of managing undamaged asbestos materials in situ.

A survey of NUT members, however, has revealed that many teachers are unaware of where asbestos materials in their school are located, which the union says undermines any management strategy. It wants to see a national audit of asbestos in schools, with priority then given to the worst schools for its removal.

It comes as the number of teachers who die from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma continues to rise – from three in 1980 to 16 in 2011 and 22 in 2012.

The NUT also quotes research estimating that as many as 300 former pupils could be dying every year from exposure while they were at school. These pupils are dying in their 40s and 50s because of the long latency period of the cancer.

This figure has been suggested by Professor Julian Peto, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who told MPs on the Education Select Committee in 2013 that there were currently between 100 and 150 deaths a year in women from mesothelioma, which could be from asbestos exposure in schools during the 1960s and 70s.

The NUT's snapshot March 2015 survey, involving 200 teachers, discovered that 46 per cent knew that their school contained asbestos, while 10 per cent had asbestos-free buildings. However, the remaining 44 per cent had not been told either way. Of the 46 per cent who knew that their school had asbestos, only 15 per cent had seen any management plan and only 60 per cent had been told where the asbestos was located.

Anecdotal evidence in the survey revealed stories of holes being drilled into asbestos to hang clocks and teachers being completely unaware that their classrooms contained asbestos panels.

NUT deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney said: "There is rising curb of teacher deaths due to mesothelioma. The notion of management of asbestos in schools is not working.

"We can say something to an adult about how to cope with an asbestos panel, but when you have 30 children there is a real difficulty with demanding good management of asbestos in these circumstances.

"There are many teachers in schools with asbestos who have not been told that there is asbestos, therefore they do not know where it is. The notion of carefully managing it just does not hold water."

A motion at the conference raised fears that those charged with asbestos management "frequently underestimate the risk from asbestos in their school". It also pointed to the US, where all parents receive an annual report about school asbestos.

The motion called on the NUT to continue campaigning alongside other unions to get the government to conduct a national audit of asbestos in schools and to fund the removal of asbestos from all schools, with the most dangerous being prioritised. It also called for the immediate removal of asbestos insulation boards from all places that are accessible to pupils.

Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, added: "The failure to assess risk, the slow responses and a lack of knowledge and awareness are major factors and what is needed to truly address the problem is a concerted effort on a national scale. Political parties must actively engage with a problem which is very far from being addressed and has taken many lives."

  • The NUT survey also found that 63 per cent of the teachers were unaware of HSE advice that no First or Second World War gas masks should be worn or handled by teachers or children because of the risk that they contain asbestos. For more, see

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