The presence of asbestos material within the fabric of school buildings, with its long history of asbestos exposure, and deadly legacy of asbestosis or mesothelioma disease, continues to be a source of dispute to this very day, as the methods of the latest Health and Safety Executive (HSE) survey are highlighted.

According to the teaching union, NUT, the latest survey carried out by the HSE in conjunction with the Department for Education (DfE) of 152 council education providers, which declared they were ‘satisfied’ that 110 have procedures and precautions in place to manage asbestos safely, was flawed and the resultant confidence in the findings, ‘misplaced’.

The HSE survey, which received assurances that the 110 providers have systems in place to meet their duties under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, had been conducted only online, and it was a follow up by an actual HSE inspection programme of the remaining 42, which found the majority of local authorities in England with ‘system build’ schools to be capable of managing asbestos safely.

According to the NUT general secretary, Christine Blower, “… the findings of this limited survey will be used to justify the abolition of a recently-established DfE steering group which was set up with the aim of improving asbestos management in schools”.

Despite the contentious HSE survey and the alleged shortcomings of the results, white asbestos can still be found in school buildings, often in severely deteriorated and damaged condition after many decades of neglect. A history of insufficient funding has too often meant that neither the fabric of the school premises nor the asbestos had been either properly or adequately ‘managed’, as the Control Regulations required.

It’s now probable that under the present coalitions government’s economic cutback programme the DfE asbestos management group will be removed. This will result only in allowing further neglect and an increased health risk from asbestos exposure to continue.

It has been long thought that it was a combination of deliberate disregard and lack of asbestos awareness, which enabled asbestos to be so readily available as a cheap source of construction material for the fourteen thousand schools which were built or refurbished between 1945 and 1975, using large quantities of chrysotile (white), amosite (brown) and crocidolite (blue) asbestos.

Even though the use of asbestos was finally banned in the 1970s, as recently as the 1980s, tests revealed that dangerous levels of amosite (brown) were released into classrooms from just hitting a wall or slamming a door inside rapidly deteriorating schools. Even the relatively safer white asbestos, from which many ceiling tiles were made, are in a highly disintegrating condition, which can release deadly asbestos fibres into the air if disturbed.

The numbers of mesothelioma claims being made by either teachers, support staff, former pupils or their surviving relatives, who were exposed and who subsequently died of mesothelioma, continue alongside the present survey findings.