Campaigners and politicians have called for drastic action amid revelations that some eight out of ten schools in Sheffield contain asbestos. Figures obtained by the Sheffield Star revealed 86 per cent of primaries and 35 per cent of the city’s secondary schools contain the potentially deadly dust.
The problem is so bad in one Sheffield school that pupils and teachers cannot put drawing pins in the walls for fear of disturbing asbestos. Out of 168 schools in Sheffield, some 135 contain asbestos – which equates to 80 per cent.
Research carried out by London law firm Stephensons revealed just under 68,000 Sheffield youngsters are going to school in buildings which contain the fibres – although there is no risk if the material is left undisturbed.
At special educational needs school Mossbrook Primary in Norton, pupils and staff avoid pinning posters and displays to the walls in case its high levels of asbestos are disturbed.
Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh has called on the Government to do more so that state schools like Mossbrook can access cash to remove asbestos.
At present, the funding is only available to academies and free schools. She said:
“I started raising this issue as soon as I was elected, following grave concerns that Mossbrook, a special educational needs school in my constituency, cannot put drawing pins in its walls for fear of disturbing asbestos.
“It cannot access the condition improvement fund because it is not an academy. Schools like Mossbrook desperately need funding from the Government to bring them up-to-date, to make them safe places for pupils to study and safe places for teachers and teaching staff to work.”
Insulation material asbestos was widely used in the building industry in the 1960s and 70s. It was banned in the UK in 1999, after a link was established to a number of fatal illnesses including lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis when the material is inhaled over a prolonged period of time.
Mossbrook Primary School was built in 1969 and retains an old, second hand boiler and old pipework. Headteacher Dean Linkhorn said:
“Schools now have to operate their own individual budgets and issues like dealing with asbestos puts an enormous strain on such limited resources.
Although there is not an issue at our school or any danger to children, it is only a matter of time before we have to tackle the removal of the asbestos we have and this is something we can ill afford. That is why I welcome Louise putting pressure on the Government to free up much-needed resources to deal with this issue in Sheffield and nationally.
Keeping children and staff safe is the biggest responsibility that comes with my job and I make sure that it is the highest priority within school.”
John McClean is the national health and safety officer at the GMB union, which is heading up a campaign to raise awareness of asbestos in schools. He said:
“What I would say to parents who may be concerned is: Check the management plan at the school. Every school should have plans detailing where the asbestos is and how much of a risk is posed.”
The GMB is calling on local authorities to be more open in how asbestos is dealt with. Mr McClean added:
“Every council in the country will tell you that they manage it fine and it is not a problem. But what we’re saying is: ‘Tell us how you do that.’ It’s all about transparency and educating people on the issue.”
On the funding differentiation, Mr McClean said the union simply wants a level playing field for all educational establishments. He said:
“This current government has an ideological drive towards academies and free schools – but funding should be spread evenly across the board.”
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health is setting a target to remove all asbestos in schools by 2035. A Sheffield City Council spokesman said:
“Let’s be clear here – we would not be putting children in schools if it was deemed unsafe to do so. Many of these schools were built in the 1960s and 70s when the use of asbestos was common practice. Hospitals, office blocks and even many private homes contain asbestos.
“Asbestos is safe unless it is disturbed. We follow strict national guidelines and protocols to manage the asbestos in schools. We monitor and inspect asbestos regularly in all our schools and these are all risk assessed.”
The spokesman said no school built after 2003 will contain any asbestos.