Thursday, 14 March 2013

Will the government please listen about asbestos in schools?

Yesterday a House of Commons Education Select Committee heard evidence from a number of parties on the issue of asbestos in schools.

Asbestos in schools may not occupy the front pages, but it is a vexed and fraught issue which demands greater media scrutiny. Consider, for example, that 16 teachers died from mesothelioma in England in 2011 alone. Over the 10 years between 2002 and 2011, well over 100 former teachers have died from mesothelioma.

The statistics, which come from a letter from Glen Watson, Director General for Office for National Statistics, to Lord Wigley, dated February 2013 (following a House of Lords question), make for worrying reading. If a teacher was killed every month in the classroom from violence there would be public outrage, urgent calls for action and, no doubt, an inquiry, but asbestos is perennially ignored.

Sterling work by Michael Lees

Yesterday Michael Lees was among those who reminded MPs of the terrible dangers of asbestos. Mr Lees' wife Gina, who was a teacher, died 12 years ago from a lung disease which a coroner blamed on exposure to asbestos in classrooms. Since his wife's tragic death Mr Lees has campaigned tirelessly to highlight the widespread problem of asbestos in schools, undertaking detailed research, giving lectures and writing admirably on the subject in the national and local press and in professional publications.

Mr Lees, who is one of the founder members of the Asbestos in Schools Group (AiS), has also emphasised what should be obvious, but which sadly is often neglected: that asbestos in schools is by definition in a volatile environment, and as such cannot but pose a risk. The government's policy of 'managing' that risk by doing nothing, as, in effect, enshrined in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, is seriously flawed.

I heartily commend Mr Lees' efforts, and join him in calling for the Department for Education (DfE) to stop delegating responsibility to individual local authorities and schools and for it to oversee the development of a nationwide programme to protect teachers and children from the dangers of asbestos.

Time to extend the Property Data survey

It is vital that the current nationwide survey into the state of England's schools (the DfE's Property Data Survey Programme) is extended to identify the scale of the problem of asbestos in our 23,000 educational premises and then to prioritise those schools that most need action. Indeed, it beggars belief that asbestos is not specifically included in the survey.

Parents and all those who are rightfully concerned about asbestos in schools are entitled to openness and transparency about the problem. In an ideal world, we would be able to eradicate asbestos from our schools once and for all, but in reality we must prioritise funding towards those schools where teachers and children are most at risk. We can only prioritise action and expenditure if the scale of the problem is fully understood.

I would also suggest that a single body be created to take responsibility for the issue of asbestos in schools. Currently, as so often when it comes to reform, there is a piecemeal rather than a holistic approach to the problem. Regular school inspections should be undertaken, with a comprehensive database of findings made publically available online, with a detailed, clearly articulated plan for the phased removal of asbestos. Future Schools Capital Allocations should also include provision for the removal of asbestos from the schools most at risk.

We can only hope that the Select Committee took careful note of the representations made by Michael Lees and others who took the trouble to give evidence yesterday. Asbestos in schools has for too long been ignored and deserves due recognition as the serious problem that it is. It cannot be right that teachers and our children are exposed to such unnecessary risks.