Unions launch website to lobby government to remove asbestos from educational buildings

Unions have launched a new campaigning website to put pressure on the government to remove all asbestos from educational buildings.
The website is launched today, Clean Air Day 2021, by the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC), comprising representatives of ASCL, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON, Unite, UCU and Voice.

The unions released a statement saying: “The impact of the pandemic on children and young people cannot be overstated. As schools continue to support pupils’ return, it is critical that we can ensure that children and young people are able to return to a safe, clean and healthy environment where they can learn and play safely.

Yet we know this isn’t always the case – some twenty years on from the full ban on asbestos in construction, its presence in many older school buildings remains a national problem, with the latest DfE figures estimating that 83.5% of schools in England contain asbestos, in some shape or form.

“Much of the school estate is old and in a deteriorating condition, this makes it even harder to avoid asbestos fibres from being released.

“According to figures from the ONS, since 2001 at least 305 teaching and education professionals have died of mesothelioma, a cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos. Whilst there are not official figures for children and young people, we know they are more vulnerable to asbestos exposure, in part due to the increased life expectancy of children compared to adults, and the long latency period of the disease.

 “Given the very real risk, significant and urgent government investment is needed to fund its phased removal from all school buildings, starting with the most dangerous first. This is the only way to ensure the safety of school staff and pupils.

The JUAC campaign is calling for:
  • an independent review of the government’s current policy of managing asbestos in-situ instead of removing it.
  • a funded programme for the phased removal of all asbestos starting with the most dangerous, with completion no later than 2028.
  • a government audit which collects and shares data centrally on the extent, type and condition of asbestos in all educational establishments.
  • support for duty holders by providing funded mandatory training, and adequate support and funding from the government for asbestos management and removal.
  • proactive inspections by HSE to ensure that educational establishments are managing asbestos effectively.
  • the government, in line with commitments made by the government in the 2015 Asbestos Policy Review, to prioritise the development of school specific risk assessments, asbestos air tests and environmental levels which take into account the vulnerability of children to asbestos exposure.
Chair of JUAC John McClean said: “The continuing presence of asbestos in so many of our schools is a disgrace, when the risks to children and adults are so well known. Effective government action to tackle this is long overdue. A phased programme of removal, starting with the most dangerous first, is the only way forward.”

ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton said: “It really is beyond time that the government got a grip on the problem of asbestos contained in school buildings. It is simply not good enough for them to continue to dismiss this issue by saying it shouldn’t pose a risk as long as it is managed. The fact that it is present in buildings at all means that there is always the potential for it to be disturbed and for it to cause damage to the health of staff and pupils. We understand that there are cost implications but it would be a good investment to remove this problem once and for all.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The impact of the pandemic on children has been huge; we need to do everything we can to make sure we safeguard their futures. One vital way of doing that is to ensure they return to a safe, clean and healthy school environment where they can learn, play and thrive. With asbestos in the majority of schools that isn’t guaranteed. We’d urge the government to invest in safe school buildings just as they invest in recovery.”

NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said: “It is a continuing national scandal that more than twenty years after asbestos was finally banned there has been no concerted effort to remove asbestos from schools. Even now, on Clean Air Day, hundreds of thousands of teachers and pupils will be attending schools containing this killer fibre, and could at any time be subject to an accidental exposure. This is unacceptable, as is the government’s continued failure to act. Asbestos is lethal. The only safe asbestos is removed asbestos.”

NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “On Clean Air Day we remember the right of every human to breathe clean air, free of contaminants such as asbestos particles, in our schools and colleges. It is disgraceful that school staff and former pupils continue to die because they were exposed to asbestos in our educational establishments. The Government’s policy of leaving asbestos in situ is clearly not working.  The NEU is proud to be associated with the new JUAC website which will help spread information and resources about asbestos in educational buildings and what must be done to eradicate it.”