Freedom of information requests to multi-academy trusts reveal shocking disparity in asbestos management
The continuing presence of asbestos in the majority of schools and academies is a national scandal – putting the lives of pupils and staff at risk. The recent Public Accounts Committee report into academies criticised the government’s lack of knowledge about asbestos, stating it cannot ensure that risks are being properly managed.
Figures released today by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) in conjunction with the campaigner Lucie Stephens and Rachel Reeves MP, reveal the shocking disparity in asbestos management across Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) and reinforce the need for the Government to take urgent action.
The data, gathered via Freedom of Information requests, included 54 reported asbestos exposure incidents in academies, including:
- asbestos identified in the ceiling of the IT suite;
- removal of toilets in the children’s centre disturbed suspected asbestos;
- asbestos found when digging out new car park.
Despite the many exposure incidents reported, the HSE had only taken enforcement action in five MATs.
These findings are likely to be a significant underestimate as not all MATs responded to the request, some refused to provide the information or provided incomplete responses.
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. Some MATs were unable to gather information about PFI schools – highlighting the lack of accountability in such arrangements.
Teachers, school staff and former pupils continue to die each year because they were exposed to asbestos in schools. Future deaths will be prevented if the Government commits to removing all asbestos from our schools.
Commenting on the findings, Rachel Reeves MP, chair of the Asbestos in Schools Group said: “The government’s failure to get a grip of this issue is putting children and teaching staff at needless risk. 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?”
John McClean, chair of JUAC said: “This information confirms that the government’s policy of managing asbestos in schools has failed. There is absolutely no uniformity in how MATs are managing their asbestos, and no standardised procedures followed when schools transfer to academy trusts.
As the Public Accounts Committee stated last week, the government must compile a central database of the location and condition of all asbestos in the school’s estate. This information must then be used to inform a phased removal of all asbestos in schools, starting with the most dangerous first.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union 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. Our survey last year found that 50% of teachers had not been told whether their school contained asbestos, and only two per cent of parents had been given this information. We need a culture of openness around asbestos in schools.”
Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT – The Teachers’ Union said: “How many more years do we have to wait and how many more lives of children and young people and staff must be put at risk before the government acts to remove this deadly substance.
“Whilst the failure of the government to ensure there is in place a programme for the phased removal of asbestos from schools is shocking enough, equally shocking is its failure to ensure that it is managed consistently across all schools.
“Asbestos is lethal.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “It is not for nothing that asbestos has been known as ‘the silent killer’ for decades and these latest findings make shocking reading. In 2018, the life of no teacher, pupil or support staff should be under threat from this insidious and malignant presence.
“It is clear that there needs to be maximum transparency on the extent of the problem and government action is urgently required to eradicate asbestos from schools and academies.
“Given the parlous state of school and local authority funding, central government needs to make funds available to ensure schools are safe places for our children and their teachers –it should not be a choice between books in the classroom and the safety of the school population. Education Secretary Damian Hinds should be making the strongest possible representations to the Treasury for increased funding to tackle this problem.”