As schools around the UK begin the Autumn term at the start of September, a Government fund which aims to provide asbestos risk cover for pupils is to launch at the same time. The Risk Protection Arrangement (RPA) is to operate in free schools and academies where, as a result of  previous asbestos awareness, the significant risks of exposure was thought by insurance companies to be ‘uninsurable’ and cover, invariably, excluded from commercial policies.

Up until now, the absence of commercial insurance had meant that mesothelioma claims involving local authority schools were likely to only be met if they took out their own self-insurance policy. But most of the four thousand academies (and free schools) can often be without the means to self insure and, in some instances, a full public liability insurance can contain asbestos exclusion clauses that can leave schools without adequate cover to meet future claims.

Thoroughly examine current insurance policy

Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 /12, academies and free schools with full-knowledge that their buildings possess asbestos-containing materials, are responsible for its management and awareness training to all staff and schools workers. In addition, they are now being advised to thoroughly examine their current insurance policy concerning legal and financially liable for future asbestos related claims, and if asbestos cover is not included, to consider the RPA scheme.

The presence of asbestos still hidden or being managed in schools across Britain continues to be an issue of abiding concern. Recently, it has been suggested that the presence of asbestos in school and other public / civic buildings is more widespread in some regions of the country than first thought.

Between 1945 and 1975, around 6,000 ( just over 45 per cent) of the 13,000 schools built in England and Wales were system / modular built using building materials made from amosite, crocidolite and chrysotile asbestos fibres. Incorporated as strengthening and fire insulation, and in areas subject to high humidity, such as toilet / washroom areas, most of the asbestos material is visible, but a significant amount is hidden in walls, ceiling voids and as column cladding behind metal casings.

75 per cent of schools likely to still contain asbestos

According to recent estimates, of the 28,950 schools across the UK, at least 75 per cent are likely to still contain significant amounts of asbestos. As many as 65 per cent of schools in Sunderland contained asbestos and in areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent. One report has also claimed that 93 per cent of schools in Edinburgh built before 2000 contain asbestos in the walls, ceilings or floors.

Management of known asbestos in schools is still considered inadequate. Compliance checks carried out at 164 voluntary aided and foundation schools and academies between November 2010 and June 2011 found that 28 were unable to produce and show inspectors asbestos management plans or neglected to provide adequate staff training.

The latest Health and Safety Executive inspection of 153 non-local authority schools, conducted between April 2013 and January 2014, found that more than four in ten failed to show “a comprehensive system in place to ensure that anyone who may disturb asbestos was told of its presence. Nearly two in five of schools responsible for their own maintenance had “not trained their maintenance personnel.”

“Entire school population exposed”

In 2013, the Medical Research Council suggested that “it is not unreasonable to assume that the entire school population has been exposed to asbestos in school buildings.” In the same year, the Education Select Committee estimated that, “ in Britain between 200 and 300 people will die each year of mesothelioma because of their asbestos exposure experienced as a child at school in the 1960 and 1970s. Over a twenty year period that means that between 4,000 and 6,000 former pupils could die.”

While the issue of a complete removal of asbestos from Britain’s schools remains unresolved, the RPA scheme is a positive step towards ensuring legal liability for the ever-present risk to staff, pupils and other school workers.