Campaigners lobbying for the removal of asbestos from schools are calling on ministers to finally release a report into the management of the substance after a delay of eight months to its publication.
The Department for Education’s (DfE) Asbestos Steering Group is to meet early next month to share the findings of the review and to discuss proposals on the management of asbestos in schools.
In response to a series of Parliamentary questions, David Laws, the education minister responsible for the matter, said he expected the report to be published by the end of February. But last week the DfE could not confirm this or give a timescale for release.
Michael Lees, who set up the campaigning group Asbestos in Schools (AiS) in 2005 following the death of his wife, a teacher, from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma, said the government’s review of asbestos policy for schools was “running out of time”.
His sentiments are shared by the National Union of Teachers (NUT), whose leader accused the government of “dragging its feet” on the issue.
Around 75 per cent of UK state schools contain asbestos and more than 140 school teachers have died from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma in the past 10 years.
In 2013, the Education Select Committee heard evidence suggesting that thousands of people could have died because of exposure to asbestos dust in schools over the past few decades.
Current government policy, based on Health and Safety Executive advice, is for asbestos “which is in good condition and remains undamaged and undisturbed” to be left in situ and managed by the school.
However, in the past decade there has been a growing campaign, led by the AiS as well as the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, for the phased removal of all asbestos materials.
Mr Lees, who is also a member of the DfE’s steering group, said: “If the review had been published when it was meant to be, in June 2014, then policy changes could realistically have been implemented, but that is becoming less likely as Parliament will be dissolved on March 30.
“This is a vitally important review and the safety and the very lives of staff and pupils depend on it. The AiS has asked for a public acknowledgement from the government that it considers asbestos in schools is a serious problem and that it will adopt long-term strategic policies to address the problem.
“The worst-case scenario would be for the government to claim that all is well and use that as a convenient excuse for making just minor adjustments to their present policy.”
Mr Lees added that the AiS campaign would continue into the next Parliament and that the issue should be non-party political.
Christine Blower, NUT general secretary, said: “Time is running out to implement new policy on asbestos management in schools before the next election.
“The DfE has dragged its feet for nearly a year and, although publication of the findings of its review is now expected, in some form, in the first week in February, we have doubts as to whether our concerns will be addressed. Asbestos in schools is a serious problem and all political parties should work together on a national strategic plan.”
A DfE spokeswoman told SecEd that there was “no set date” at the moment for the publication of the report.