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Asbestos scare in 1,400 schools

Checks on all buildings between 1945 and 1980 after high levels of killer substance found.

Headteachers have banned staff from drilling screws into classroom walls and closed off access to roof space as 1,400 schools are inspected in an asbestos scare.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) wrote to all local authorities last year after potential asbestos exposure was discovered in schools in Wales. While builders were working on a school in Rhondda Cynon Taff in July 2006, high levels of fibres were released, prompting the closure of several schools.

But schools are affected across the UK. They were all built between 1945 and 1980 as Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (Clasp) buildings. Asbestos cladding was incorporated inside their metal columns.

The HSE set up a working group, telling local authorities to check their Clasp school buildings and seal gaps in column casings where necessary. Its safety inspectors have issued 19 improvement notices to councils that had not done the necessary remedial work. Five of those were to Sandwell for failures to deal with asbestos in its secondary schools; 12 were to Walsall for failures in its primary schools.

Some councils are still surveying their Clasp schools so it is not yet known how many of the 1,400 buildings will need work.

The National Union of Teachers said all asbestos should be removed from schools, citing the dozen teachers who die every year from asbestos-related disease.

Bob Yeomans is the headteacher of St John's CE Primary School in Walsall, the subject of an HSE improvement notice requiring the council to assess the school's asbestos risk. He and neighbouring heads had been forced to close off access to roof voids and access hatches. "The impact on me as head has been considerable," he said. "We can't fix things on walls, access the network cabling or stop taps."

Southfield School for Girls in Kettering, Northamptonshire, was awarded pound;3.1 million last year by the Technology and Construction Court in London after asbestos was discovered in its classrooms and corridors. It shared the money with the county council, which had helped pay for the repairs.

The school was forced to close its buildings for six months after an asbestos removal firm accidentally contaminated them. Pupils were taught in mobile classrooms and on various sites around the town.

David Mackness, chief executive of Scape System Build, the council-owned company that works on Clasp building design, said the advice against entering roof voids and drilling holes in walls was standard with potentially affected buildings.

"It is important to follow regulations and have asbestos awareness training in place," he said. "There is no need to panic, but also a need for people not to be complacent."

- School leaders concerned about potential asbestos exposure should contact their local authorities.

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