Toxic Schools Still a Danger to UK Children and Staff
Despite the fact that the use of all types of asbestos was banned in the UK over twenty years ago, millions of tonnes of asbestos-containing material remain hidden within the national infrastructure. While asbestos contamination in Parliament and Buckingham Palace garnishes front-page coverage, less attention is paid to the situation in the UKs 32,000+ schools, the majority of which still contain asbestos.1 The health consequences of asbestos exposures can prove fatal and the time-bomb in our schools, as one Parliamentary body called it, is a fact of life for school users.2
A report published a fortnight ago by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) raised concerns about the Department for Educations (DfE):
understanding of asbestos within the school estate. Asbestos is a significant, and potentially dangerous, problem in many schools. We have previously found that the Department did not have a complete picture of asbestos in school buildings, or enough information to ensure that the risks were being properly managed it has still not earmarked specific funding for asbestos management, or determined whether this is a barrier to schools engaging with the Department on asbestos risks.
Clearly dissatisfied with the lack of feedback from so many respondents to DfE questionnaires, the PAC report speculated that:
some schools might not highlight that they had asbestos to avoid alarming staff and pupils, especially if it did not hold sufficient budget to fix the asbestos problem. The Department confirmed that there was no designated asbestos funding, but that it was a key consideration when allocating funding based on school condition. It explained that it did not have a target for the total removal of asbestos from the school estate as there was some asbestos that was better left in place than disturbed
The PAC has given the Department six months to produce a report showing its full understanding of asbestos across the estate, detailing the asbestos risk arising from the nonresponders, along with its plans to manage the asbestos risk in schools.3
Commenting on the failures of the DfE as identified in the PAC report, both Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, and Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders specifically mentioned asbestos, with the former saying: the Department has committed only a fraction of what is required to address potential dangers to our young people from schools in poor condition including those where there is risk from asbestos4 and the later:
The PAC is right to voice concerns about the condition of the school estate and the continuing threat posed by asbestos in school buildings. Much of the school estate is relatively old and is in urgent need of significant remedial work which includes the phased removal of asbestos. The funding made available by the government for capital spending is nowhere near enough, and the longer this is not addressed the greater the problems will become. Children, young people, and the staff who teach and support them deserve better.5
A Parliamentary enquiry begun last year (2021) by the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee with the remit to scrutinize the Health and Safety Executives current approach to asbestos is due to issue its report in the next few months. Having heard evidence from UK, French, and Dutch and German experts, one can but hope that the adoption of state-of-the-art techniques and methodologies as used abroad to minimize toxic exposures will be endorsed, and that a phased removal of the asbestos contamination of schools will become public policy.6 This is a life and death issue which the HSE, the DfE and others have ignored for far too long.
March 30, 2022
1 All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health. Asbestos in schools. The need for action. 2012.
All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health. The asbestos crisis. Why Britain needs an eradication law. October 19, 2015.
2 According to the Health and Safety Executive: Asbestos can be found in any building built before the year 2000 (houses, factories, offices, schools, hospitals etc) and causes around 5000 deaths every year.
3 House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts. Academies Sector Annual Report and Accounts 2019/20. March 16, 2022.
4 Tens of millions of public money used to prop up poorly managed academy schools with potentially excessive levels of pay. March 25, 2022.
5 ASCL responds to PAC report on academy trust finances. March 25, 2022.
6 Committee of Work and Pensions. Health and Safety Executives approach to asbestos management. 2021.