Lack of proper management of asbestos in schools continues to be a growing fear among teachers concerned that the risk of exposure, which can lead to mesothelioma and asbestosis disease is not being fully tackled by government.

Of nearly 29,000 schools across Britain, 75 to 85 per cent are estimated to still contain significant hidden quantities of asbestos. In some areas of Manchester and Wales, the figure could be as high as 90 per cent. Teaching unions, NASUWT and the NUT, argue that the only safe solution is the complete removal of all asbestos from every school in the country.

The extent of the problem faced by teachers and their pupils has been highlighted by the results of a recent NUT membership survey. The response clearly indicates that many teaching staff have poor asbestos awareness to the existence and location of the deadly fibre materials at their school, the health risks, and a lack of information and training.

One in three claimed an incident had occurred

More than four in ten (44 per cent) claimed that they had not been informed whether their school contains asbestos. While nearly a half of respondents (46 per cent) did know that asbestos was present in their school nearly all (40 per cent) went on to say that they had not been told where it was located. 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.

Problems with implementing asbestos management plans in schools have been reported previously. Between April 2013 and January 2014, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspected 153 non-local authority schools and found that more than four in ten failed to show “a comprehensive system in place to ensure that anyone who may disturb asbestos was told of its presence. Nearly two in five of schools responsible for their own maintenance had “not trained their maintenance personnel.”

Between November 2010 and June 2011, compliance checks carried out at 164 voluntary aided, foundation schools and academies found that 28 were unable to produce and show inspectors asbestos management plans or neglected to provide adequate staff training.

According to the NUT report, published in March 2015, only 13 per cent of respondents knew that schools are not routinely inspected to check how asbestos is being managed.

Teachers falling victim to mesothelioma continues to rise

The potential health risks should not be underestimated. In 2012, a House of Commons ‘All Party Parliamentary Group’ report noted that, ‘Over 140 school teachers have died from mesothelioma in the past ten years.” Latest available statistics gathered from the Education sector reveals that the number of school teachers falling victim to mesothelioma continues to rise.

177 teachers have died from asbestos-related diseases since 2001 and the number of deaths since 1980 was 291. Mesothelioma claimed the lives of 22 school teachers in 2012, alone. Between 2003 and 2012, those school workers who also lost their lives to the deadly disease included, 16 educational assistants, 8 school secretaries and 8 nursery nurses and assistants.

Worryingly, the present NUT survey reported that over three quarters of respondents were unaware of the growing death toll among teachers caused by asbestos exposure. Only one in five said they knew that children are more at risk than adults from breathing in asbestos fibres, due to the long period of time ( 15 – 50 years) the disease can take to develop before asbestosis symptoms first appear.

Eight in ten parents not given information

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, the Government Education Select Committee suggested that “Over a twenty year period… between 4,000 and 6,000 former pupils could die.”

Significantly, more than eight in ten of respondents in the NUT survey said that parents had not been given information about the presence of asbestos and how it is managed.

The presence of asbestos in schools is a long running issue that is regularly reported when the fibres are discovered on a school premises. However, the health risks to teaching staff and pupils continues to be unresolved. Just prior to the NUT survey, the long-delayed Department for Education’s ‘asbestos in schools’ policy review was finally released, which drew considerable criticism for failing to provide any long-term strategies for the eradication of asbestos from all UK school buildings.