We have an ‘unstoppable momentum’ in the fight against asbestos in schools

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Asbestos campaigner: Michael Lees

Michael Lees, a leading campaigner for greater awareness about the dangers of asbestos in schools, has retired after 15 years dedicated to this vital cause. Dorothy Lepkowska speaks to him about his work and achievements

It is well-known now, in 2015, that there are major concerns about the asbestos in our schools. Equally, we now have access to a wide range of statistics on asbestos-related deaths and predicted deaths – and the government is under increasing pressure to improve asbestos management in schools and public buildings. But it was not always the case.

When Michael Lee’s wife, Gina, died of the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma 15 years ago, at the age of just 51, the situation was quite different. The issue was not widely discussed nor were too many links made between the deaths of staff and former pupils and asbestos in schools.

Neither the Health and Safety Executive nor the Department for Education, in any of its guises, publicly acknowledged the dangers of asbestos presence in schools, which were, in any case, regarded as no different to any other workplace.

It has taken a decade and a half of campaigning by Mr Lees and others to bring this issue into the public consciousness: “It wasn’t in the interests of governments to publicise the dangers, nor to investigate the impact of asbestos exposure to children because of the expense involved and the panic it might cause,” he told SecEd.

“Parents would justifiably have asked what was being done, and it would have become a massive political issue.

“We now know, because of the Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC), for example, that children are far more vulnerable than was originally thought and it is acknowledged that schools need to be viewed differently to other places of work. That is because of the pressure that has been put to bear in the last few years.

“We are now talking about this in a way we weren’t two decades ago. The debate is based around knowledge and information, and we have that evidence on our side. That in itself gives me great hope for the future.”

The figures speak for themselves. Between 1980 and 1985 there were 15 recorded mesothelioma deaths among school teachers – just three per year. In 2012 alone, there were 22. The numbers are set to continue to rise as the links have become more evident.

Around 75 per cent of UK state schools contain asbestos and there is now further 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.

In recent years, Mr Lees has been a member of the Department for Education’s Asbestos Steering Group, which advises ministers, and he was a founder of the campaigning organisation, Asbestos in Schools.

He also sits on the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, which comprises membership from 10 teaching and related trade unions. Those groups encouraged the creation of the CoC, adding medical expertise to the debate.

There is little he doesn’t know about the dangers of asbestos, having painstakingly gathered more than 500 documents through Freedom of Information requests and other channels.

The loss of his wife, a former nursery teacher, was devastating but Mr Lees hopes he has campaigned in a balanced and measured way.

“Gina was only 51 when she died and we were looking forward to our children growing up and having time to ourselves,” he said. “That is what you do at that age – you don’t expect your spouse to die so young.

“Those feelings of anger at the unfairness of it all have been a powerful driving force, but I have tried hard not to become extreme about the whole thing. I have endeavoured to be meticulous in my research, and balanced and measured in speaking and writing about the subject, because I have to deal with officials, experts and ministers.”

The most recent Department for Education report, published just prior to the General Election, acknowledged that children were more vulnerable because of the wear and tear on school buildings.

In this respect, schools needed to be treated differently to public sector office blocks or other workplaces. The report made a number of key pledges, including creating clearer guidance on managing asbestos in schools and ensuring all duty holders were aware of their responsibilities in relation to its presence in schools.

It was a step in the right direction, but could have gone further, Mr Lees says. “What we really need, and don’t yet have, is a strategic policy for the future that will lead to the eventual eradication of asbestos from schools. There is an EU undertaking that this should be done by 2028 and I don’t know if this is realistic.

“But what needs to happen first is an assessment of how big a problem it is in this country (because the impact on individual schools will vary depending on their age) and then costings put in place for how to deal with it. We cannot continue to have teachers and pupils needlessly dying from asbestos-related conditions.”

Mr Lees, who is now 67, admitted that he made his decision to retire two years ago. He plans to spend more time on his boat and with his grandchildren.

“It wasn’t that my work on the campaign was done, because I could carry on for a lot longer,” he said. “But sometimes campaigners need to take a step back and let someone else take on the baton: “I have been at it now for 15 years and I feel we have reached the point where there is an unstoppable momentum around this issue. This isn’t going to go away as we have increased awareness and knowledge about the dangers.

“I have met so many good, dedicated people who will continue this work and who are heavily involved already and know what to do to enable this vital work to continue.

“I have been privileged to work with them, but also with civil servants at the Department for Education and people in the Education Funding Agency who are responsible for school buildings. Over the years I developed a huge amount of respect for them because they understand the issues and they understand what needs to be done.

“I am also grateful to SecEd and other publications who have persistently kept this in the public eye by covering the issues. This has been hugely important to our campaign.

“With all of these people on our side, I am confident for the future.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

For SecEd’s coverage of the asbestos issue, go to http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/search/asbestos/


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