A teaching union has called for a programme to remove asbestos from school buildings, arguing that "managing" the substance is not a solution.
The comments come as Department for Education survey today revealed that almost one in five (17.8 per cent) schools are not managing asbestos "in line" with government guidance.
The survey, to which 19,522 schools responded, around four in five (81-84 per cent) of England’s school buildings have asbestos somewhere on their site.
The report did show that 18,846 schools, or 97 per cent of all participating schools, were managing asbestos according to government requirements.
The findings have prompted teaching unions to call for a programme to remove asbestos from all schools safely, as well as further investment in areas of need.
Hayley Dunn, business leadership specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the survey showed “the vast majority of schools are managing the presence of asbestos well, and we welcome the support being provided by the Department to schools where there may be room for further improvement.”
“However, the fact remains that asbestos is present in a large number of schools and this is a source of huge concern. We need a programme to safely remove asbestos from school sites with investment phased according to the level of need. Managing asbestos is a stopgap. The only lasting solution is to get rid of it completely.”
A minority of schools did not participate in the survey, with 12 per cent of schools failing to respond. A small percentage of schools – 251, or 1.3 per cent of participating schools – did not know if asbestos was present on their site.
A significant proportion of schools had also not been surveyed for asbestos in the last year. While 29 per cent of schools had been surveyed within the last twelve months, 13 per cent of schools were surveyed between three and five years ago, while 37 per cent of schools were surveyed more than five years ago.
Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations legislation from 2012, schools must have a detailed plan for managing their asbestos, yet 4 per cent of schools reported not having a plan, 651 of which had reported asbestos being present on their sites. Of the schools that did have a plan, 19 per cent had reviewed the plan between one and three years ago, while 11 per cent of schools had not reviewed their plan within the last three years.
The report stated that there was good practice in managing asbestos in the majority of schools, yet “some schools did not have a full understanding of the documentation associated with asbestos management.”
Chris Keates, general secretary (acting) of NASUWT, said: “The NASUWT is deeply concerned to see that in a significant number of schools, asbestos is still not being managed safely. All steps must be taken to keep staff and children safe.
“Every year, teachers and other education staff die from mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos fibres. In addition, up to 300 adults die each year due to exposure to asbestos in schools during childhood.
“We regret that the Government is simply not doing enough to protect staff and pupils."
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Being able to teach and learn in a safe school environment is non-negotiable, which is why it is so reassuring to see how seriously schools and local authorities are taking their responsibilities on asbestos."
“More than 19,000 schools responded to this voluntary survey, compared to 5,592 in 2016, allowing us to gather more information on asbestos in schools, and we will publish updated guidance for schools on effective management of asbestos later this year."
“We have provided over £7.4 billion for maintaining and improving school buildings to support schools and local authorities since 2015. On top of that, the Priority School Building Programme is rebuilding and refurbishing buildings in the worst condition at over 500 schools across the country.”