Renewed concern has been expressed by teaching unions over figures revealing the high number of schools around the country containing asbestos.

Fears that teachers, pupils and other school workers continue to be put at risk of asbestosis diseases comes just two weeks following the long-delayed publication of the Department for Education’s ‘asbestos in schools’ policy review, which has been widely criticised for failing to provide any long-term strategies for asbestos removal.

Significant quantities of asbestos

Between 1945 and 1975, more than four in ten schools built in England and Wales used insulating materials made from asbestos fibres incorporated in a variety of locations, such as ceilings, partition walls, heaters, water tanks, pipes and window surrounds.

Growing asbestos awareness to the long term fatal health risks of mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the lung linings, led to the first asbestos ban of the most toxic brown and blue asbestos types in the mid 1980s.

White asbestos, however, was still allowed to continue being used in the construction industry for at least another ten to fifteen years. As a result, more than forty years later and recent estimates suggest that three quarters of the 28,950 schools across the UK are likely to still contain significant quantities of asbestos. In specific areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent.

In Greater Manchester alone, at least 1,600 of the region’s local authority buildings – including 700 schools – still contain asbestos materials. Mesothelioma fatalities in the region have also been reported to have dramatically risen by 500 per cent in the last 30 years, and predicted to continue until 2020.

Lancashire and Worcestershire

Historically, the north of England has been an asbestos industry blackspot. It has been estimated that as many as 65 per cent of schools in Sunderland contain asbestos and the county of Lancashire, uniquely, has its own specialist asbestos inspection teams.

According to figures released by Lancashire Council, across the entire region more 570 of the county’s 617 schools contain asbestos. In Burnley, as many as 42 schools have been found to contain asbestos containing material followed by Hyndburn and Pendle ( 38 schools each), 35 in Rossendale, 22 in the Ribble Valley and 11 in Blackburn.

In response to the alarm raised by teaching unions NASUWT and the NUT over the risk to the school population, a spokesman for the county council admitted that in common with the rest of the country “most of Lancashire’s older schools contain some asbestos” but insisted that “Where it occurs, it is inspected regularly and does not represent any threat to staff, children or young people.”

The same reassurance over asbestos safety fears was given by Worcestershire County Council as figures released under the Freedom Of Information Act show that 180 schools in their area are currently known to contain asbestos. According to the council, “ all the buildings have been surveyed” and all asbestos is “managed in accordance with the approved code of practice. Any potentially hazardous is being removed under an ongoing programme.”

Teachers not convinced they are safe

The teaching unions maintain they are not convinced that asbestos is being properly managed. Along with the Asbestos in Schools group, the teaching unions continue to call for the complete removal of all asbestos from every school in the country as being the only safe solution to prevent potential exposure. Compliance checks carried out at 164 voluntary aided and foundation schools and academies between November 2010 and June 2011 found that 28 were unable to produce and show inspectors asbestos management plans or neglected to provide adequate staff training.

At the same time as the latest figures for Lancashire and Worcestershire were released and the government’s asbestos in schools report was being poorly received, Secretary of State for Education, David Laws MP was being asked a question in Parliament over the provision of funding to each local authority in 2014 to remove asbestos in schools.

Government leaves decision to schools

The question was asked by Mark Hendrick Labour MP for Preston, where the majority of schools are known to contain asbestos.

According to Laws, in 2014 over £650 million was allocated to local authorities to be spent on improving the condition of their school buildings, which was in addition to around £750 million allocated to academies, academy trusts and other schools outside of local authority control.

A further £4.2 billion is to be made available for improving the condition of school buildings during 2015-18 but Laws added that it was up to local authorities, academy trusts and schools themselves “to judge when asbestos needs to be removed, or other works are necessary to make it safe.”