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Why asbestos management in schools isn’t working

Asbestos management in schools

Why asbestos management in schools isn’t working

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Sarah LyonsSarah Lyons has worked for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) for over 20 years, where her role includes responsibility for all aspects of the Union’s national work on health and safety. She is a member of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) and she works alongside all the other teaching and support staff unions to keep pupils and staff safe from the dangers by promoting effective asbestos management in schools. You can follow the JUAC on Twitter via @theJUAC or simply visit www.juac.org.uk.

If you’re in a governance role in a school or academy and are unfamiliar with how the issue of asbestos in schools might affect you, please ensure that you also read the article Asbestos in schools – what governors need to know.

What’s the issue with asbestos management in schools?

We are repeatedly told by the DfE, which takes its cue from the HSE, that it is generally safer to manage asbestos in schools rather than remove it.  Unfortunately evidence points in the opposite direction.  It is clear that asbestos management is a task that many schools understandably struggle with and where much greater support and funding is needed.  Because the consequences of exposing children and staff are so serious (it can lead many years later to the development of the cancer mesothelioma for which there is no cure) much more needs to be done to protect them.  In the long term the answer is a programme of phased removal, starting with the schools in the worst condition, but in the short and medium term better management is vital.

The 2017 NUT survey

A March 2017 on-line survey undertaken by the National Union of Teachers, to which nearly 2000 members responded, found that only nearly 50% of all respondents had not been told whether their school contained asbestos. This is concerning given that the majority of schools (86%) do contain asbestos. Less than 5% of respondents had been told that their school did not contain asbestos, therefore the majority of respondents either knew that asbestos was present in their school, or had not been told either way.

Of the 46% of respondents who had been told that their school contained asbestos:

  • Half had not been told where the asbestos was located so would not be able to take steps to avoid disturbing it.
  • Nearly 75% said that the asbestos was in locations accessible to children and staff, such as floors, ceilings, window frames.
  • Three quarters said that staff had not been provided with asbestos awareness training.
  • Only 2% of respondents said that parents had been given information about the presence of asbestos in the school.
  • Nearly a quarter were aware of incidents of potential asbestos exposure in their school.

Read the full report here (PDF version of file on NUT web site).

Examples of practice in schools

There were many examples of dangerous practice highlighted by respondents.  One described that: ‘Contractors came in to work in an area known to have asbestos, they were masked and suited and started work while children were in the same room unprotected waiting for a bus. It was reported and they were sacked.’ 

Another reported that:  ‘Asbestos has been found twice – next to and in my teaching room. I have raised concerns about it but do not feel my concerns have been taken seriously and have not been fully informed of the risks. The first time I was left teaching in my room with only a blue sheet protecting me and my class from exposure. I raised concerns at the time, especially because I was pregnant, but I was told there was no risk to mine or the children’s health.’

In an even more recent example, just after the Easter holidays at a primary school in Lancashire, ceiling lathe plaster fell through the ceiling void on to a classroom full of children, injuring some of the children as well as potentially exposing them because of the asbestos present in the artex coating. Although the head teacher acted swiftly and children and staff were quarantined, this incident demonstrates the problems faced by school leaders in trying to manage asbestos.

Patchy FOI responses

The disturbing findings from the NUT survey reflect those from a series of Freedom of Information requests to all local authorities in England and Wales enquiring about asbestos management undertaken by the asbestos campaigner Lucie Stephens (@maidafloat on Twitter) to which 135 local authorities responded. These revealed:

  • 105 significant incidents of asbestos exposure within five years were recorded
  • 230 claims by current or former staff and pupils were bought. 108 claims have been settled and 122 are still outstanding.
  • Of the claims which have been settled, over £10 million has been paid out in compensation.
  • 12,500 schools are known to contain asbestos. This figure does not include academies, free schools or those outside local authority control.

All of this information is likely to be a massive underestimate as some LAs did not respond to the FOI request or refused to provide the information. Some asked for payment in order to collate the information.

Other LAs provided inaccurate information because particular known incidents were not mentioned.

Despite being the duty holder, some LAs said that responsibility rested totally with the individual schools, and said the information would have to be requested from the schools themselves.  Other LAs provided ambiguous and unclear responses and appeared to not hold information about asbestos in their schools. This is extremely worrying since under health and safety law, where the LA is the employer,  it has ultimate overall responsibility for health and safety matters affecting employees, and others, including of course pupils.  Of course, in an academy trust or in Voluntary-Aided schools, where the trustees, directors or governors are the employer these responsibilities rest with them.

The LA responses to Lucie’s requests can be viewed at on her What Do They Know? profile page – you may well find your local authority’s response there.  A similar exercise is currently underway to assess the position across academies and academy chains and the results of that exercise should be available in early July.

Find out more about the first national conference on asbestos in schools – for governors, school leaders and others – taking place in July 2017.

The 2016 voluntary DfE survey

In 2016 the DfE undertook a voluntary on-line data collection exercise to assess how well schools were managing asbestos.  Because of the voluntary nature of the exercise, there was only a 25% response rate.  The findings revealed that 52 per cent of schools were managing their asbestos appropriately, however this figure included schools with no asbestos which clearly skews the findings.  If the schools with no asbestos present are removed,  the proportion of schools with generally appropriate asbestos management arrangements decreases from 52 per cent to 43 per cent.   The DfE agrees that assurances are needed from all duty holders and we hope that steps to seek these assurances will begin soon, however, until a future Government takes the bold step of prioritising removal of asbestos from schools,  children and staff will continue to be put at risk. Responses to the NUT survey are shocking in this respect:

“My sister died of mesothelioma in January last year after 30 years teaching in an old village primary school.”

“Two ex-staff (one dead; not sure about the other) with confirmed mesothelioma. One further member of staff believed to have died from mesothelioma.”

three ex-members of staff (two consecutive heads of science and one cleaner) dead or dying from mesothelioma, there is obviously a concern among long-serving staff about historical exposure to asbestos.”


Image credit: Bauer Elementary Miamisburg, Ohio. Asbestos Warning! by Ktorbeck – used under CC0 from Wikimedia Commons.


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