Calls for a UK-wide audit of asbestos in schools have increased after councils in Wales were ordered to compile information on the presence of the deadly material.
It comes after the temporary closure earlier this month of Cwmcarn High School in Caerphilly after concerns about asbestos came to light.
The school re-opened gradually this week but Wales’s education minister Leighton Andrews has now asked all local authorities to report on asbestos levels in their schools.
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) has been pushing for a UK-wide audit for some time to establish the extent and condition of asbestos-containing materials in schools.
However, in his response to a Parliamentary question in the aftermath of the CwmCarn closure, the UK schools minister David Laws maintained that a national audit is “unnecessary”.
He said: “It would duplicate records which those responsible for managing asbestos are required to keep. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, schools must maintain and regularly update an asbestos register with the location and condition of asbestos-containing materials in the school.”
The statement came as the Department for Education this week published new guidance for schools and governors to help them manage asbestos in their schools (see later for details).
More than 75 per cent of Britain’s state schools contain asbestos and a report earlier this year from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health found that much asbestos is badly maintained, meaning that children and staff are at risk of exposure. Read the full story here.
More than 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma, the cancer that can be caused by exposure to asbestos, in the past 10 years.
Studies in the US have estimated that for every one teacher who dies from mesthelioma, nine former pupils will die in adulthood from their exposure as a child. In the UK this would mean that more than 100 people are dying every year as a result of asbestos exposure when they were at school.
The government says it is working with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to ensure asbestos is managed properly by schools. However, campaigners are concerned that the HSE will no longer proactively inspect UK schools.
JUAC, which is a joint trade union campaigning committee, wants a national audit of the “extent, type and condition” of asbestos in UK schools and a risk assessment of the standards of asbestos management.
It argues that only with this information could the government allocate proportionate resources and target those schools most at risk.
Its chairwoman Julie Winn said: “The confirmation from David Laws that the UK government will not implement an audit of asbestos in schools is totally unacceptable.
“This incident in Wales demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the government’s policy to manage asbestos in schools instead of getting it removed.”
“We fear that children’s and teachers’ safety is being jeopardised in relying on local authorities and individual schools to assess and maintain the condition of this deadly mineral in our schools. It is time the government made a commitment to carrying out a national audit of the asbestos in our schools.”
The renewed calls for a national asbestos audit comes as the Department for Education publishes its long-awaited e-guidance on managing the material.
The guidance tackles issues such as where asbestos can commonly be found, how it can be disturbed, how to manage it, asbestos training, and legal advice. It also offers a HSE checklist.
It has been put together with input from the Asbestos in Schools group, which was set up by campaigner Michael Lees.
He told SecEd: “The DfE asbestos awareness e-guidance provides a good introduction to the problems of asbestos in schools, the risks and the measures headteachers, governors, school managers and school staff should take to manage those risks.
”It is clearly written and open. The Asbestos in Schools Group would also recommend that parents read the guidance for a better understanding of asbestos in their children’s schools. “
The guidance is available at www.education.gov.uk/b00215518/asbestosmanagementschools and for more on the Asbestos in Schools group, visit www.asbestosexposureschools.co.uk