The lack of a strategy to eradicate asbestos from schools has been criticised by two people with experience of the dangers it poses. (A Big Issue in the North magazine article. )
A headteacher from York and the widower of a teacher who died from an asbestos- related disease, mesothelioma, were commenting following the publication last month of a government review of schools asbestos policy.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) estimates 90 per cent of schools contain asbestos and that at least 253 teachers died between 1980 and 2013 from mesothelioma – a disease with no known cure and which can take between 25 and 50 years to develop.
Prior to 1985, when it was banned, asbestos was widely used in buildings to insulate pipes and electrical appliances and on floor coverings. Annual deaths from asbestos are expected to peak at over 4,000 in 2020.
Although the government published its review last month, a more extensive Education Funding Agency survey in 2012-14 of 19,000 schools excluded asbestos. The NUT contends the government is therefore “unaware” of the extent, type and conditions of asbestos in schools and “has made no attempt to remedy the situation”.
Tony Gavin, head of Laurence Jackson Secondary (LJS) School, Guisborough, near York, said the decision to exclude asbestos from the survey, which will be used to decide funding allocations to schools, was a mistake.
“Everything in the 1950s was built with asbestos. With death totals still rising a full survey should be prioritised,” he said.
In 2010 Gavin worked with Redcar and Cleveland Education Authority to implement an asbestos plan for the school and identify areas of concern such as windows that should not be tampered with. “We then tackled two areas where immediate work was required,” he said. “Now that our school is being rebuilt under the Priority School Building Programme, one building had its asbestos removed before demolition in December.”
Gavin said whoever is elected at the general election should adopt an asbestos removal strategy. “I think this would be a very good idea, especially as many school buildings are gradually being replaced or demolished anyway,” he said.
Michael Lees’ wife Gina died from mesothelioma in 2000. She had enjoyed a 30-year teaching career until being diagnosed just three months before she died. Lees has since formed the campaign group Asbestos in Schools. “I welcome the release of the review of schools asbestos policy as at one point it did look like it was going to be held back until after the election,” said Lees. “And it does acknowledge teachers, support staff and former pupils are dying for asbestos exposure.
“But it lacks vision and proposed no long term strategy to eventually eradicate asbestos from our schools.”
A Department for Education spokesperson could not comment in detail because it is a pre-election period but said: “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of children and staff in our schools.
“Schools have information to ensure those responsible for managing asbestos are equipped to do so effectively.”