The Department for Education has just published its long-awaited ‘asbestos in schools’ policy review eight months later than was originally scheduled, alongside new Department of Education (DfE) guidance for schools and local authorities.

In 2012, the (DfE) set up a programme to provide up-to-date and accurate information on the condition of Britain’s school buildings, which was completed in 2013 but remained unpublished. Similarly, there was still no sighting of the DfE consultation on a policy proposal for tackling asbestos in schools, which was due to be released in June 2014.

Concern had been growing among mesothelioma and asbestos victim support groups, and campaign organisations, such as ‘Asbestos in Schools’ that the government might quietly shelve the review until after the May election. It appears that mounting pressure in recent months from individual MPs and union spokesmen has led to the sudden release of the report.

Does little more than acknowledge the existence of asbestos

Was the delay in publication worth the prolonged wait? The overall response suggests that the government effort has been a disappointment. Both the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the Asbestos in Schools group agree that the report makes a number of “constructive proposals”, which includes improving asbestos awareness, guidance and training for school staff, with a focus on ‘transparency and accountability of school duty holders.’

However, the review appears to do little more than acknowledge the existence of asbestos in schools – misguidedly supposed as ‘low-risk’ – but fails to show any in-depth knowledge and insight into the extent of the problem. Asbestos In Schools founder Michael Lees, points to the “selective choice of evidence”, adding that the government failed to recognise 50 years of “extensive and authoritative evidence” proving asbestos is a serious problem.

According to Mr Lees, the review had been provided with evidence that the incidence of mesothelioma in Britain is “by far the worst in the world” because of the import of ‘brown’ asbestos amosite, a highly toxic asbestos type banned from use in 1985. Lees highlights that amosite was used “extensively in the walls, ceilings, heaters, windows and door surrounds of thousands of schools and is vulnerable to damage from children.”

Lack of “up-to-date information”

The comments are further underlined by criticism that the review does not include “up-to-date information” on the widespread levels of asbestos, which are now estimated to be still hidden in school premises around the country.

Between 1945 and 1975, more than four in ten schools built in England and Wales used insulating materials made from asbestos fibres. More than four decades later on and recent estimates suggest that three quarters of
the 28,950 schools across the UK are likely to still contain significant quantities of asbestos.

In 2012, a House of Commons ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’ report noted that, ‘Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years” and 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, evidence given to 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.”

No long term strategies

Disappointment has also been expressed that the review failed to introduce any long-term strategies to remove asbestos from schools. Among the measures put forward in the review is a general indication only from the government that under the Priority for School Building Programme any asbestos present in the school building will be removed.

The NUT General Secretary Christine Blower also echoes the view that “The report is a step in the right direction, but no more” and pledges that the union will “continue to challenge political parties to set out how they intend to deal with the problem in the run up to the general election.”