A lack of uniformity in how asbestos exposure is dealt with in school academies is putting both staff and students at risk, according to campaigners.
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), which seeks to make all schools and colleges free from asbestos, claimed that almost 90% of schools contain the substance, with around 17 teaching staff dying from mesothelioma – a cancer caused by asbestos exposure – every year.
Freedom of Information requests sent to multi-academy trusts by JUAC revealed that asbestos was present in 1,863 academies.
The academies said there had been 54 reported incidents of asbestos exposure in total, often because unexpected asbestos had been uncovered. Incidents included finding asbestos in the ceiling of an IT suite, discovering asbestos under the carpet in a classroom and finding asbestos when repairing a pipe in a library.
Despite more than 50 reported exposures, only five multi-academy trusts admitted they had received an improvement or prohibition notice by the Health and Safety Executive, JUAC claimed.
Some trusts did not have a legally-required asbestos management plan and many admitted they had not audited their management plan on an annual basis.
JUAC chair John McClean called on the Government to compile a central database of the location and condition of all asbestos in schools.
“This information confirms that the Government’s policy of managing asbestos in schools has failed. There is absolutely no uniformity in how multi-academy trusts are managing their asbestos, and no standardised procedures followed when schools transfer to academy trusts,” he said.
JUAC has called on the Government to tackle asbestos in schools in a number of ways, including a programme of phased removal of the substance from all schools and the creation of a central database of asbestos in education establishments.
Labour MP Rachel Reeves, who is chair of the Asbestos in Schools Group, said school staff and children were being put at risk: “The Government needs to come up with a clear strategy to ensure any potential exposure to asbestos is minimised and that staff and pupils are kept safe. Parents and teachers have been left in the dark for too long about the extent of the problem.”
The Treasury should increase the funding available to tackle the problem, according to Unite general secretary Len McCluskey.
“It is not for nothing that asbestos has been known as ‘the silent killer’ for decades and these latest findings make shocking reading.
“In 2018, the life of no teacher, pupil or support staff should be under threat from this insidious and malignant presence,” McCluskey said.