School funding pressures leave pupils and staff at risk from exposure to asbestos in schools

Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) press release.

Not only is the school funding crisis having a devastating impact on educational provision – significantly its effects extend to the buildings in which children are taught, of which nearly 90 per cent contain deadly asbestos.

Today the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), in its response to the Education Select Committee School and College Funding Inquiry set out:

  • why there is an urgent need for ear-marked Government funding to enable phased removal of all asbestos in schools and colleges; and
  • why the Government’s policy of managing asbestos in situ, rather than removal, is unrealistic and poor value for money, as well as placing children and staff at an elevated risk of developing mesothelioma cancer.

Several recent examples of local authorities and multi academy trusts struggling to safely manage asbestos-ridden buildings were highlighted, including:

  • a school in Oxfordshire forced to partly close and reduce the teaching week for some pupils because of asbestos and other maintenance issues;
  • an academy in Cumbria forced to close temporarily when asbestos, which should have already been identified, was damaged by contractors;
  • an academy in Cornwall where the Trust failed to take action for 5 months after being informed of potential exposure;
  • a school in Lancashire where asbestos was drilled into by contractors leading to the need for HSE-licensed asbestos contractors to conduct an environmental clean of the affected areas;
  • an academy in Birmingham, which contained asbestos, where part of a ceiling collapsed leading to the school closing.

If funding was available for phased removal, these all too regular incidents would gradually become less frequent.

The National Audit Office in its 2017 report Capital Funding for Schools (pdf) highlights that £6.7 billion is needed to restore all school buildings to a satisfactory condition and a further £7.1 billion to bring parts of school buildings from a satisfactory to good condition. These figures are likely to be an underestimation as they were formed from the DfE’s 2014 Property Data Survey, so parts of the school estate are likely to have deteriorated further since then.

This survey also did not include asbestos, so these figures make no assessment of the cost of asbestos management and removal. 60 per cent of schools were built before 1976.  Most of these will contain asbestos which not only makes them more difficult and expensive to maintain, but a more risky environment to work or learn in.

If we are to protect young lives the only solution is for a programme of phased removal, with ear-marked capital funding to either remove asbestos, or demolish and replace inadequate buildings, where this is more cost-effective.

John McClean, Chair of JUAC, said:

‘Asbestos poses a serious risk to the health of pupils and staff. Despite this, the school funding formula does not take account of factors such as asbestos, which places schools with substantial amounts of asbestos at a considerable disadvantage.’

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

‘The Government must commit to a substantial increase in capital funding to ensure the school estate is safe, sustainable and conducive to learning. Within this, there must be earmarked funding for the phased removal of all asbestos in schools, starting with the most dangerous first.’

Deborah Lawson, General Secretary of Voice: the union for education professionals, said:

“Asbestos is the hidden killer in our schools. That is why the Government must fund the phased removal of all asbestos in schools and colleges to protect children and staff.”

About JUAC

The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) was formed in 2010 and is a trade union campaigning committee comprising the 8 unions: Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL); National Education Union (NEU); National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT); NASUWT; Voice; plus the education sections of UNISON, Unite, and the GMB. The Group has the objective of making all UK schools and colleges safe from the dangers of asbestos. All the unions in JUAC are also members of the Asbestos in Schools (AIS) campaign.

JUAC is a non-party political group and both JUAC and AIS have a common interest in making UK schools and colleges safe from the dangers of asbestos, both for staff and pupils. In the long term we wish to see all asbestos removed from all schools. However we recognise that, realistically, the focus in the short and medium term must be on safe management of asbestos in schools and colleges.

@TheJUAC

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