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significant levels of amosite when children bang into walls and columns or slam doors. Guidance was then given to fill the cracks in columns, walls and skirting boards with silicone sealant, and to ensure that AIB ceiling tiles fit securely in their grid. These measures are only a temporary expedient as they do not solve the problem, they just hide it. If air can pass through a crack then so can asbestos fibres, so it is impossible to block every crack and gap. As long as there is asbestos in schools there is always the potential for fibres to enter rooms. More than 228 school teachers have died of mesothelioma since

1980. In 1980 three school teachers died each year, but the numbers have inexorably increased to 16 a year. School caretakers, cleaners, teaching assistants and school secretaries are also dying of mesothelioma, and if they are being exposed to asbestos and dying then so are their pupils. Mesothelioma latency is so long that their deaths are recorded under the occupation they had at the time of their death, so there are no statistics that show how many pupils have subsequently died from asbestos exposure at school. In the 1980’s the USA carried out an audit of the friable asbestos in their schools and estimated that 1,000 staff

“In order to make sound decisions

headteachers and school governors have to be trained in asbestos awareness.”

and pupils would subsequently die of mesothelioma, and 90 per cent would be the subsequent deaths of pupils. In Britain that would equate, proportionately, to 2,000 subsequent deaths of pupils. That is a very serious problem but it has never been properly addressed. The USA, in comparison, recognised the particular vulnerability

of children to asbestos and in 1986 implemented stringent asbestos regulations specifically for schools. Because they assessed the scale of the problem and the risks they were able to allocate proportionate resources. Asbestos training and asbestos surveys were made mandatory and funds were provided so schools really could manage their asbestos. They also adopted a policy of openness so that each year, by law, staff and parents are told about the asbestos management in their schools. In September this year a further $30 billion has been allocated for school repairs including asbestos remediation and removal. This country is very different. In 1986 all schools were advised to

identify their asbestos and manage it, but the guidance was not mandatory so many schools failed to follow it, and it was not until the 2002 asbestos regulations that many schools started identifying their asbestos and implementing management systems. However the standards of asbestos management in many schools are poor and this has been confirmed in a recent round of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspections of schools outside local authority control. 158 inspections took place and about a third of the schools had enforcement action taken for failures in asbestos


management. There were 74 breaches of the asbestos regulations for failing to identify asbestos, failing to implement a management plan and failing to train staff. This is in addition to earlier inspections of local authorities that resulted in 38 improvement notices being issued for similar failures to safely manage asbestos in their schools.

Correct training It is most important that all members of both teaching and support staff are trained in asbestos awareness, and are informed where asbestos is in their school and what actions they have to take to prevent their pupils and themselves disturbing it. In order to make sound decisions headteachers and school governors have to be trained in asbestos awareness. They are responsible under law and so have to ensure that their staff are managing asbestos safely, and that maintenance is carried out safely. There have been cases where school authorities and headteachers have been held liable following asbestos incidents. In one case thirty windows were ripped out of their AIB surrounds using crowbars and power saws while staff and pupils looked on. The teachers then swept up the asbestos debris from their classrooms and the children returned to lessons. At his trial the headteacher said that asbestos was a complete foreign language to him. In another case a headteacher told pupils on litter duty to clear up

AIB tiles stored in a boiler house. The caretaker supervised them as they smashed them up and disposed of them. In both incidents the exposures of staff and pupils was significant, and both incidents were caused by a lack of training of the headteachers. The DfE will shortly be introducing web- based asbestos training for governors, headteachers and support staff. It will not be mandatory, but if the occupants of schools are to be protected from the dangers of asbestos it is vital that headteachers, governors and all staff take part in the training. Government policy when schools are refurbished is: “Asbestos which

is in good condition and unlikely to be disturbed or damaged is better left in place and managed until the end of the life of the building.” The policy is flawed because the government has not funded schools

so that they can effectively manage their asbestos. Effective management is not a cheap option and it requires constant vigilance and a long term commitment. Even then nobody knows whether hidden asbestos is in good condition, and one cannot guarantee that a child will not slam a door or kick a wall and disturb it. In the 1980’s the Association of Metropolitan Authorities advocated a policy of identifying the most dangerous materials and progressively removing them as it is safer and, in the long run, cheaper. The Schools Capital Review is presently considering how to bring the school estate up to a safe and structurally sound condition. One of their priorities must be to identify those schools with the most dangerous asbestos materials, prioritise them for refurbishment and remove the asbestos.

• Michael Lees is a member of the DfE Asbestos in Schools Steering Group. For more information, visit

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