Least year a deadline was set for schools and academies to submit online, a declaration that their schools are compliant with legislation on the management of asbestos.  This was 31st May 2018. Fears remain that thousands of teachers, pupils and other school workers continue to be at risk of exposure, which could lead to asbestosis disease or mesothelioma cancer.

The DfE launched its Asbestos Management Assurance Process (AMAP) on 1st March 2018. However, concern has been raised over AMAP, as the declaration is not compulsory, and there are no external inspections or spot checks to ensure that the information provided is accurate.

Continuing problem of “asbestos in schools”

In March 2013, a parliamentary enquiry into the continuing problem of “asbestos in schools” discussed the lack of asbestos awareness and training, which had led to “a failure by schools to manage their asbestos properly.” Just three months later, research completed by a Government advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) concluded that “children are more vulnerable than adults” from exposure to asbestos.

There was “unanimous agreement” that a child living longer would enable mesothelioma to develop, estimating that “the lifetime risk … is around 3.5 times greater for a child first exposed at age 5 compared to an adult first exposed at age 25 and about 5 times greater when compared to an adult first exposed at age 30.”

Attention is repeatedly drawn to the issue of asbestos management, most notably from the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC)…

“The lives of staff, pupils and others are being put at risk”

In 2016 the JUAC – which includes representatives from Teachers Unions, ASCL, ATL, NASUWT and the NUT – again called for government action to deal the “national scandal” of asbestos in schools. Recent information obtained by JUAC under a Freedom of Information (FOI) reveals that at least 335 primary and secondary school teachers died of mesothelioma across the UK between 1980 and 2015. A previous FOI request in November 2014 highlighted the shocking discovery that 19 teachers, on average, die every year from mesothelioma or related lung cancers caused by asbestos exposure.

As recently as July 2017, the Parliamentary Asbestos in Schools Group, once again repeated that “there is an undeniable problem with asbestos in schools” and “the lives of staff, pupils and others are being put at risk”. Once more, the government was urged to act with a “phased removal” alongside “centrally funded, mandatory audits in every school built before 1999.” The current DfE initiative may be seen as a partial response to the need for more robust action.

It is hoped that AMAP will, at least, encourage schools to take positive steps and show they are meeting their asbestos management duties. However, it is increasingly believed that where schools and academy trusts are the employer, they appear to have distanced themselves from their responsibility for asbestos management.

Asbestos installed in a variety of locations in a school building

Between 1945 and 1975, more than four in ten schools built in England and Wales used insulating materials made from asbestos fibres. Constructed of prefabricated, light gauge steel frames with panel infill, which could be easily and cheaply built up to a maximum of 4 storeys, and large quantities of asbestos were installed in a variety of locations in a school building, such as ceilings, partition walls, heaters, water tanks, pipes and window surrounds.

Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are still regularly uncovered in schools, nurseries and colleges around Britain and is now considered to be more widespread in some regions of the country than first thought. Previous estimates suggest that as much as three quarters of the 28,950 schools across Britain still contain significant amounts of asbestos, and in specific areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent.

Nearly half of teachers did know that asbestos was present in their school

Research carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) between April 2013 and January 2014 found that nearly two in five of schools responsible for their own maintenance had “not trained their maintenance personnel.” In one survey of school teachers, more than four in ten (44 per cent) claimed that they had not been informed whether their school contains asbestos and nearly half (46 per cent) of teachers did know that asbestos was present in their school. Of those who were aware of the presence of asbestos, more than one in three also claimed an incident had occurred, which may have led to exposure but fewer than two in ten had seen a copy of their school’s asbestos management plan.

Once a list of the school bodies which have complied with the AMAP request has been assessed, the DfE should be able to highlight those schools which had not participated. Where assurance declarations give rise to concerns, the HSE may need to be involved. The results of AMAP could also act to put further pressure on the DfE to introduce a more rigorous process involving inspections whenever future exposure incidents and bad practice occur in schools, and spotlight failures where assurance declarations have been provided.

It is also hoped that by asking for voluntary assurances – along with the possibility a school being “named and shamed” for not safely managing their asbestos – may, in itself, nudge schools to carry out their responsibilities.