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Asbestos in schools – what governors need to know

Image credit: Danger: Asbestos Hazard by thirtyfootscrew - licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Asbestos in schools – what governors need to know

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Valentine MulhollandThis guest post is contributed by Valentine Mulholland, Head of Policy at the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and a member of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC). This Committee brings together teaching and support staff unions to campaign about the risk to school pupils and staff presented by the presence of asbestos in schools and the current approach to its management.

What’s the risk?

It’s a worrying truth that more than 85% of UK schools contain asbestos. It was a widespread building material for schools that was still in use until the turn of this century. It’s worrying because even low level exposure to asbestos fibres in the air is known to cause mesothelioma, a terrible and almost always fatal type of cancer.

Furthermore, the Committee on Carcinogenicity determined in 2013 that children are more vulnerable to asbestos than adults due to their longer life expectancy from the time of their exposure to asbestos. Despite the known risk posed by asbestos and its prevalence in schools, the Department for Education has no information about the condition of asbestos in schools. The recent Property Data Surveys that were undertaken to assess the condition and capital investment needs of the school estate failed to consider asbestos at all.

Leadership from the DfE?

The Department also has no national strategic plan for the ongoing management of the asbestos that exists or any plans to remove it, regardless of how damaged it is or how much of a risk it poses. The official policy of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is that asbestos in schools should just be managed where it is, but a number of serious incidents over the last few years where pupils and staff have been exposed to asbestos in schools and academies casts serious doubt over this policy.

The responsibility for managing asbestos lies with the ‘duty holder’. In maintained schools, that will be the local authority although they may delegate some of this role to the head teacher; in academies this will be the trustees, who may also delegate this role. There is no requirement that duty holders undergo any training to fulfil their role, despite the seriousness of the issues. If they’re doing a poor job this won’t be picked up as the HSE have stopped inspecting schools to see how well they’re managing this serious threat to staff and pupils. It’s not clear why their inspections ceased, especially since the HSE’s final set of inspections resulted in 29% of the schools visited being served with a warning notice for poor management of asbestos. Without HSE monitoring of the policy there is now no organisation responsible for ensuring that pupils and staff are being kept from harm.

Meanwhile, the condition of asbestos in schools is deteriorating as it gets older, and because much of it is accessible to children, it has the potential of being disturbed by normal school activity, meaning that asbestos fibres can be released over the course of many years without anyone being aware. An indication of the risk this presents is that the number of teachers dying from mesothelioma has increased significantly since the 1980s (PDF), from an average of 3 per year to 17 per year since 2011.

The situation needs to be addressed as soon as possible to stop further unnecessary exposure to asbestos. JUAC is campaigning for a national strategy to assess the extent and condition of asbestos in schools and academies, for robust plans to be made to remove asbestos in the worst condition, and for effective management of the remainder.

The implications for governance

So what does this mean for governors & trustees? It means that they need to ensure that their school or academies within their MAT have a robust asbestos management policy in order to protect the pupils and staff.

This should include ensuring that the condition and extent of asbestos has been surveyed by an accredited surveyor. The findings should be included in the school’s asbestos register and inform a clear plan to protect children and staff. It means regularly reviewing the register, making sure it is up to date, and ensuring that its contents have been shared with all staff so that they know how to protect themselves and their pupils by avoiding disturbing asbestos.

It also means governors ensuring that all staff are trained in understanding asbestos, the risks it presents and where it is located in their schools.  Governors must ensure that the ‘duty holder’ is more fully trained to understand their duty to protect staff and pupils.

A more challenging goal is the need for governors to make long term plans to remove asbestos where it presents an unmanageable risk. With reductions in capital funding, this can seem impossible but it needs to be recognised that not all asbestos can be safely managed.

As schools move to become academies it’s also important to understand that the trustees of an academy are ultimately accountable for the management of asbestos, and may need to buy in specialist expertise to support them with the issue.

It’s vital that governors and trustees ensure that they’re equipped to deliver their responsibility to manage asbestos in their school, so that children and staff are protected.

Questions for your next governors’ meeting

  • Do we know who the ‘duty holder’ is for our school or academy?
  • If we are a maintained school, do we have knowledge of the local authority’s arrangements regarding the management of asbestos on our site?
  • If we are an academy – either standalone or part of a MAT – what arrangements have the trustees made in this area?
  • Do we have an asbestos management policy? When was it last reviewed and when was the school last surveyed?
  • What, if any, training have staff had in understanding asbestos and the risks associated with it?

Image credit: Danger: Asbestos Hazard by thirtyfootscrew – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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