Asbestos ticking time bomb again highlighted by “shocking disparity” in the way multi-academy trusts manage risk

 There have been more than 50 asbestos exposure incidents in academies, according to new figures obtained by education unions which are of a “shocking disparity” in the way multi-academy trusts (MATs) manage the risk. 

The incidents included asbestos being found in the ceiling of an IT suite when a school car park was being dug out, and fears that asbestos had been disturbed during the removal of toilets from a children’s centre.

The new figures and cases have been revealed by a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) to more than 1,200 MATs nationally. More than half did not respond.

An MP leading the Asbestos in Schools Group said the findings showed the need for the government to develop a clear strategy to tackle the “ticking time bomb” in schools.

JUAC said that despite 54 exposure incidents being reported, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had taken action against only five MATs.

The union committee also warned that despite it being a legal requirement, some MATs did not have asbestos management plans for their academies, and many were not auditing the plans on a routine basis.

JUAC also found some MATs were unable to gather information about schools built under PFI arrangements.

The figures have been released today by JUAC in conjunction with the campaigner Lucie Stephens and Labour MP Rachel Reeves, chair of the Asbestos in Schools Group.

Ms Reeves said:

“These latest findings show that many schools are unaware of the risk or the extent of asbestos in our schools. 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. Labour committed to a phased removal of asbestos in schools in our 2017 manifesto. How many more teachers and pupils’ lives have to be put in jeopardy before the government commits to tackling this ticking time bomb?”

JUAC is made up of eight education unions: Association of School and College Leaders; NEU; NAHT; NASUWT; Voice; plus the education sections of Unison, Unite, and the GMB.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said:

“It is disgraceful that school staff and former pupils continue to die because they were exposed to asbestos in our schools. These findings show that the government’s policy of leaving asbestos in situ is not working.

When questioned by the Public Accounts Committee, the government said information about asbestos should be freely available locally, but we know this isn’t happening.”

John McClean, chair of the JUAC said:

“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.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said:

“We expect all local authorities and academy trusts to have robust plans in place to safely manage asbestos in buildings, and provide detailed guidance for them on doing so. We have recently launched a new Asbestos Management Assurance Process to ensure they are following these requirements.

We have also invested £5.6billion in the maintenance of school buildings, including removing or encapsulating asbestos when it is the safest course of action to do so.”

JUAC submitted Freedom of Information requests to 1280 MATs in 2017 asking about the presence and management of asbestos within their academies. Of these, 442 MATs responded.

Within these MATs, 1,863 academies were reported to have asbestos present. These MATs reported that 182 of their academies had been built wholly after 2000 and therefore would not contain asbestos.