Killer Schools

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Why do we still have asbestos in our schools?


What’s significant about that figure? Firstly, it’s a devastating, horrible figure but one that is definitely going to increase year by year and so will inevitably become more grotesque.

According to the NUT, this is the number of teachers who have died from mesothelioma since 1980 as a direct consequence of being exposed to asbestos fibres. Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer of the lining of the lung and victims die within 18 months of diagnosis because it is picked up too late. It can take decades to develop and by the time it is spotted, sufferers deteriorate very quickly.

Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive form of cancer that primarily develops in the lining of the lungs or the abdomen. Mesothelioma has no known cure and has a poor prognosis.

Here is another horrible number. It is thought that for every teacher’s death, 9 children will die because of asbestos exposure whilst being at school.  Children are more vulnerable to the effects of asbestos and over 5 times more likely to develop mesothelioma by the age of 80 than their teacher of 30 because of the long latency. Teacher deaths are just the tip of the iceberg.

Asbestos is thought to be in virtually all schools constructed between 1950 and 2000.

Michael Robert Lees MBE

We should all know this name. Michael Robert Lees was awarded the MBE in 2014 for services to the Wellbeing of Children and Teachers as campaigner and one of the founders of the Asbestos in Schools Group.

Asbestos in Schools has aimed to inform parents, teachers and support staff about asbestos in schools by giving guidance on how to improve the management of asbestos in schools and to encourage transparency in the Government’s policy towards asbestos in schools.

Michael Lees set up the web site and this is the most influential and comprehensive site addressing asbestos in schools in the UK. It contains meticulously referenced research material that is widely used by teachers, parents, lawyers, mesothelioma interest groups and the press.

Michael Lees’ wife was a nursery school teacher and she died at the age of 51 of mesothelioma after she was exposed to asbestos at school. Since then he has devoted himself to researching and investigating the widespread use of asbestos in schools, the complete failure of many schools to manage their asbestos, and the snowballing deaths of teachers and support staff from mesothelioma. He has highlighted the specific risk to children.

Michael Lees has now retired from the Asbestos in Schools Group but we have a lot to thank him for. The AiS now operates from and is more angled towards public participation.

Asbestos Needs To Be Eradicated

In 2015 The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health produced a report called The asbestos crisis: Why Britain needs an eradication law which said that

“the time has come to put in place regulations requiring the safe, phased and planned removal of all the asbestos that still remains in place across Britain. Only that way can we ensure that future generations will not have to experience the same deadly epidemic from asbestos-related diseases that we suffer today.

….. the duty-holder must develop and implement a plan for the removal of all asbestos which ensures that removal is completed as soon as is reasonably practical but certainly no later than 2035. In the case of public buildings and educational establishments, such as schools, this should be done by 2028.”

Is this happening? It probably won’t surprise you that the AiS group found

“Despite the regulations calling for all premises to be surveyed and asbestos containing materials to be regularly inspected and labelled, we know that this is not happening.”

The Education Funding Agency, the body responsible for state education funding, found in their report ‘Asbestos Management in Schools Data Collection Report’

Around 20% were not fully compliant, in that they did not have fully documented plans, processes and procedures in place at the time of the data collection; or did not know if asbestos was present.

It is astounding to think that there are 1 in 5 schools being so reckless with the health and wellbeing of their staff, children and visitors. 114 schools have been found to be a “significant cause for concern” and required government intervention; the level of negligence is incredible.

What To Do

There are documents that all schools need to put at the top of their pile to ensure that they are managing asbestos:

The management of asbestos in schools A review of Department for Education policy March 2015

Asbestos in schools data collection Guidance on completing the online form January 2016

Managing asbestos in your school Departmental advice for school leaders, governors, staff, local authorities, academy trusts and charitable trusts February 2017

Asbestos in schools: Where it may be located Departmental advice for school leaders, governors, staff, local authorities, academy trusts and charitable trusts February 2017

Remarkably, schools don’t have to inform parents about the presence of asbestos in their children’s school because health and safety legislation does not require it. But schools need to send a clear message out to parents what they are doing.

AiS produced a checklist for parents that all teachers and governors would also find useful and I urge you to take a look.

I have seen first-hand the horrendous effects of mesothelioma and the devastation it can wreak.

We can stop asbestos-related diseases and we need to make sure that the work of Michael Lees continues until all schools have removed asbestos for good. His impact has been considerable and we can continue the fight to ensure that everyone is safe.

For more than 40 years the government has been warned of the dangers to children in schools but for financial reasons and political expediency it has allowed the use of asbestos to continue. Let us hope duty-holders treat their responsibilities seriously and the government waste no more time in getting rid of asbestos for good.

The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) is hosting an Asbestos in Schools conference on Tuesday 4th July 2017 at Hillscourt Conference Centre in Rednal, Birmingham. Follow JUAC to find out more.

The UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world – this literally is life and death. For an update on the issues raised here then go to Martin George’s article for the TES where we are told that to remove all the asbestos from schools would cost £100 billion.

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