Rachel Reeves (pictured), Labour MP for Leeds West and new chairperson of the Asbestos in Schools (AiS) group, has called on the Education Secretary to deal more effectively with the longstanding problem of asbestos in our schools.
The threat posed by asbestos-containing materials when they degrade over time has been a significant concern for teachers, staff and pupils, and there have been several deaths among teachers from asbestos-related diseases.
Campaign groups fear that too little is being done to control the risks and minimise dangers, but what measure can be taken considering the sheer amount of asbestos in our schools?
Asbestos training for school staff
Those who employ workers in the maintenance trades must provide asbestos awareness training if they are likely to encounter asbestos during their normal working day. There is also an argument that school employees, particularly maintenance staff, should receive this type of asbestos training, so they are more aware of the dangers involved.
In fact, in conjunction with the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), Asbestos in Schools group recommends that all governors, head teachers, school teachers and support staff undergo mandatory asbestos training at a level commensurate with their role in the school.
Asbestos and CLASP buildings
The Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme system, or CLASP, was introduced in the 1950s to design and construct buildings for public sector use. Although the basic design of these buildings was made with schools in mind, it was also used for offices and housing up until the 1980s.
The main objective of CLASP was to use lightweight materials to produce a cost-effective modular building that could be easily replicated. Asbestos in various forms was used as insulation and fireproofing, providing a low budget solution for local authorities.
Extensive use of asbestos-insulating boards (AIB), sprayed coatings, and asbestos ceiling and wall tiles, means that our schools are full of this carcinogenic substance, releasing fibres and dust whenever it starts to break up.
What is the Department for Education (DfE) doing to address the problem?
The government has always taken the stance that asbestos does not pose a danger if properly managed. Their current policy is to leave asbestos in place if it is intact, and argue that removing all asbestos in schools will introduce greater risk.
Nottinghamshire County Council has previously put forward proposals that demolishing CLASP schools would be safer and more economical than refurbishment. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health has also called for a bill to be introduced, providing a framework for the complete eradication of asbestos from all UK workplaces.
They described the situation as a “time bomb in our schools” with chairperson Ian Lavery, adding:
“There is far too much complacency about the asbestos which we can still find in hundreds of thousands of workplaces as well as a majority of schools where children face exposure to this killer dust.”
The group proposed that remediation works within schools are completed by 2028.