The children’s rhyme “ring o’ ring of roses”, which once was heard in school playgrounds up and down the land, was often said to refer to the symptoms of the Great Plague of London in 1665. While this explanation is often disputed and the rhyme is now no longer heard, there’s no doubting the presence of another refrain, which still echoes in the classrooms and corridors of up to as many as 80 per cent of schools across the UK.

Asbestos in schools – is a term that continues to cause alarm and distress – and rightly so. However, unlike the deadly health risks of the past, asbestos remains very much a real threat in the 21st century. The widespread use of asbestos insulation in the construction of school buildings in the decades following 1945 still poses a safety risk. Between 1946 and 1976, around 4.3 million tons of asbestos was imported into the UK for all types of industrial use including, construction. By the late 1970s, the increasing clear link between asbestos exposure, mesothelioma cancer and other debilitating asbestosis diseases saw the start of the decline in the use of the fibres although the first ban didn’t arrive until the mid 1980s.

Amount of asbestos can often be underestimated

Despite of progress in raising asbestos awareness, the lack of proper management in school premises where the materials have previously been identified can still cause significant problems and serious disruption to pupils, parents and local authorities, alike. Very rarely does a week pass without a report of asbestos found in a school property. Worryingly, the extent of the amount of asbestos can often be underestimated and invariably leads to further discoveries and a challenge to completing a thorough removal.

In the news recently is a Dorset school, which has suffered a two year delay in relocating due to unexpected high quantities of asbestos. A spokesman for the government’s Education Funding Agency (EFA), which is responsible for sourcing a permanent site and preparing the school for use, said survey work had been carried out to establish the extent of asbestos in the buildings but it was “not always possible to identify all matters until construction works start”.

Asbestos continues to cause problems at a number of schools in Scotland. During recent work at one West Dunbartonshire primary school, asbestos originally used during the construction of the buildings in the early 1960s was unearthed under concrete slabs and is now causing a three month delay.

Local authority appears to be caught out by the presence of asbestos

The discovery of asbestos contaminated ground follows the discovery of the deadly fibres at a further three more schools including, one primary school in the same region, in the last two years. Local councillors have raised questions over the keeping of records of contaminated land and historical knowledge of previous land use. Once again, it seems there is an issue with an asbestos survey as the site could not surveyed or tested until the slabs were removed.

Unfortunately, there are numerous previous examples of schools where the local authority appears to be caught out by the presence of asbestos materials. Early in 2016 An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the discovery of asbestos during a refurbishment at a Medway school in south east England found that the building contractors failed to refer to the asbestos register, which kept a record on the location and condition of the materials. The school Trust had also failed to complete a pre-works asbestos survey, which meant they could not ensure the contractors would have the necessary asbestos information.

Recently, a Glasgow council was due to allow authorised contractors to begin removing asbestos found at a primary school while 100 nursery pupils would still be in their classrooms. Not unexpectedly, a number of parents voiced their concern and have insisted that all children must be evacuated before work proceeds. Despite issuing an assurance that the works “posed no threat to the health and safety of the children or staff members… and all materials will be removed in accordance with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012”, the parents were less convinced.

All Party Parliamentary Group calls for urgent action

At least three quarters of the 29,000 schools across Britain are estimated to still contain significant amounts of asbestos, and in specific areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent. The problem of asbestos in schools in Scotland may even be more urgent than anywhere else in the country. It has been recently reported that more than 93 per cent of schools in Edinburgh built before 2000 contain asbestos in the walls, ceilings or floors.

In 2014, an All Party Parliamentary Group issued an updated proposal from two years earlier – which noted at the time that “over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years” – now urgently called for action to deal with the continuing problem of asbestos in schools. Included in their recommendations was a long term programme for the phased removal of asbestos from all school premises.

The call has yet to be answered with clear, affirmative action but sure to be called for once more in an endless cycle of ”ring o’ roses” for the 21st century.