Joint Union Asbestos Committee release statement on asbestos in schools ahead of national conference

The conference is organised by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), a non-party political campaign which aims to protect children and staff in schools by promoting awareness of the dangers of asbestos and the need for improved management.

The continuing presence of asbestos in our schools is a scandal, as is the shocking lack of consistency in the way in which it is managed across the country.  Around 86 per cent of schools contain asbestos and deaths from mesothelioma are increasing.  In 2014, 17 teachers aged 74 and under died of mesothelioma.  The total number of support staff deaths is not known.

Of even greater concern, particularly to parents, is that children are at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma in later life, because of exposure to asbestos at their school.  It is estimated that 200 – 300 former pupils are dying each year as adults because of exposure at school during the 1960s and 1970s. This number is likely to increase considerably because many of the system buildings, such as CLASP, with the most asbestos are deteriorating and inadequate funding and support is available for necessary maintenance, renovation and demolition.

Freedom of Information Data obtained from local authorities indicates that at the current rate of funding it will take another 50 years for potentially dangerous CLASP schools to be demolished.  Only 25% received funding for repair, maintenance and demolition between 2010 and 2017.

Recent Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to all local authorities in England and Wales have revealed that over £10 million has been paid in compensation to former school staff and pupils as a result of asbestos exposure. The FOI requests reveal a shocking disparity in how asbestos in schools is being managed, with some LAs stating they do not hold this information, despite being the legal duty holder.

JUAC is currently repeating this FOI exercise with Multi Academy Trusts, in order to establish a national picture of which schools contain asbestos, something the DfE has so far failed to do.

JUAC’s contention is that the policy of managing asbestos in schools is simply not working and is putting children and staff at risk.  JUAC calls upon the Governments in England, Scotland and Wales to:

  • undertake a national audit of asbestos in schools;
  • set out a long term strategy for the removal of asbestos from all schools; and
  • ensure that the Health and Safety Executive has the funding it needs to routinely inspect schools.

The 2017 Labour Party Manifesto included a commitment to remove asbestos from all schools, the first time any political party has made this pledge. JUAC calls on all parties to confirm their commitment to protecting our children and school staff from this hidden killer.

Rachel Reeves MP, who chairs the Asbestos in Schools Group, will address the conference and there will be speakers representing the trade unions, the DfE and HSE, alongside medical and other experts in the field.   Delegates will come away with a better understanding of the hidden dangers that asbestos poses to pupils and school staff, and what needs to be done to keep them safe.

Speaking about the conference Rachel Reeves MP, Chair of the Asbestos in Schools group said: 

“The 2017 Labour Manifesto committing to a phased removal of asbestos in schools was a step-forward, recognising great work by trade unions in bringing attention to the issue. The JUAC conference is an opportunity to continue this work. It is unacceptable that we continue to put pupils and staff at risk. The Government should follow this lead and commit to a phased removal.”

Kevin Courtney, NUT General Secretary, said:

“The continuing presence of asbestos in our schools is a national disgrace, putting at risk the health of staff and children. This conference will shine the spotlight on how asbestos is managed and by bringing together representatives from Government, the HSE, the medical profession, those who work in the field, employers and trade unions we hope that all parties will share a better understanding of the need to do more to protect the occupants of schools and begin a national phased programme of removal.”

Mary Bousted, ATL General Secretary, said

“It is shameful that the government continues to ignore the simple fact that as long as asbestos remains in school buildings children and staff are at risk of entirely preventable illnesses. This conference will bring together experts in asbestos to promote a better understanding of its dangers and agree how best to ensure the safety of those who work and study in our schools.”

Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT – the Teacher’s Union said:

“The NASUWT has long campaigned for the phased removal of asbestos from schools, and the fact that over 70% of schools still contain this lethal substance is unacceptable. Asbestos is a silent killer and its continued presence in schools means that hundreds of thousands of teachers, support staff and our children and young people are at risk of being exposed every single day.

The NASUWT is pleased to host this Conference which will focus not only on the dangers of asbestos but also, in the absence of a coherent removal plan, how asbestos can be managed to minimise risk to all teachers, support staff and pupils.”

Russell Hobby, NAHT General Secretary, commented;

“Asbestos in schools is a serious and often neglected issue, and the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) conference will help highlight the dangers to school leaders, teachers and pupils. It is now clear that a national audit of asbestos in schools is needed, leading to a long-term strategy for the phased removal of all asbestos.

The school estate is chronically underfunded, with the National Audit Office estimating that there is a £6 billion gap in capital investment just to return school buildings to a satisfactory condition. We need a national debate on how this gap can be tackled. Every pupil deserves to be taught in high quality, safe and secure school buildings.”

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said;

“It is a scandal that the health of our children and teachers is being jeopardised because of the continued presence of asbestos in schools. Government ministers need to act and understand there will always be a danger as long as this silent killer is found where someone could be exposed to it.

This conference will not only deepen understanding, but also discuss positive steps for the safe removal of asbestos from our schools and ensure its deadly menace is lifted for future generations.”

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis added;

“Cuts to budgets have made managing asbestos in schools a great deal more difficult. And forcing schools to become academies has made it harder to know where the responsibility for this deadly hazard really lies. This is putting the health of pupils, support staff and teaching assistants, at risk.

The only way of eliminating the damage done by asbestos is its phased removal from all schools and public buildings. The Government must rethink its policies not only on asbestos, but on school funding and academies as well.”