Inspecting standards of asbestos management in schools is not within the remit of Ofsted, the official body for inspecting schools. Nor are local authorities allowed to have a system in place, which would permit inspections under their own control to be carried out.
The above revelations were made during recent question and answer sessions held by the Department of Education (DfE) Asbestos Steering Group. It seems that schools are left to themselves to organise their own asbestos management, the standards of which are inspected under the sole responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Regular reports of asbestos containing materials (ACMs) being discovered in schools, nurseries and colleges has pushed asbestos awareness of the continuing potential health risks to pupils, teachers and school workers alike, into more parliamentary debates. Yet progress on reforms legislation is still urgently needed as asbestos exposure in schools continues to claim mesothelioma victims.
In one recent case, a victim of asbestos-related cancer, who was only 30 years old when diagnosed with the fatal, incurable disease, had collected evidence of his likely exposure when a school pupil between 1982 and 1993. There is usually a gestation period of between 15 to 50 years from an initial exposure to the emergence of asbestosis symptoms.
More widespread than first thought
While previous estimates suggested that as many as three quarters of the 28,950 schools across Britain still contain significant amounts of asbestos, its concealed presence is now believed to be more widespread in some regions of the country than first thought. In specific areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent.
Between November 2010 and June 2011, asbestos management checks conducted by HSE found that around 17 per cent of those schools surveyed were unable to produce the necessary asbestos management plans. Yet at the same time, in 2011, the government announced that asbestos inspections in “low risk” workplaces would be stopped. Consequently, local authority schools, were classified as low risk despite the likelihood that teachers and pupils were breathing in raised levels of asbestos dust for six or seven hours per day.
In 2012, a House of Commons ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’ (APPG) produced a booklet – “Asbestos in Schools – the Need for Action.” The report noted that, ‘Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years”, highlighting the level of danger from asbestos in Britain’s schools, and calling for urgent action. 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.”
Clear need to put decisive action in place
Despite the repeated warnings, and the clear need to put decisive action in place, minimal progress seems to have been made. In the early months of 2014, an All Party Parliamentary Group report, first issued in 2012, was updated once more to propose that “solutions, short, medium and long term must now be urgently carried out to deal with the problem of asbestos in schools.”
In 2013, the Committee on Carcinogenicity (CoC) confirmed that children are more at risk from the dangers of contracting asbestosis diseases than adults. The younger the child the greater the risk, with the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma for a five year old child being about five times greater than an adult aged thirty.
The latest alarming revelations arising from the DfE Asbestos Steering Group debates that there is still no official asbestos management strategy in place is likely to raise even greater levels of concern in teachers, school staff and parents, alike, fearful for the safety of the children while in school.