The decision to award pound;240,000 to the family of Dianne Willmore, who died aged 49 from the cancer mesothelioma, represents a landmark ruling. It is the first time legal action has been successful on behalf of someone exposed to asbestos in a school as a pupil, rather than as a teacher or caretaker.
Since 1980, more than 220 teachers are thought to have died as result of exposure to classroom asbestos. And because mesothelioma typically takes between 30 and 50 years to develop, the number of asbestos-related deaths is expected to rise sharply in the next decade. Whether the majority of victims will be former teachers or pupils is not clear. Teachers spend many years in the same classroom, increasing their level of exposure. But a 40-year-old teacher might not live long enough to develop mesothelioma - a 10-year-old pupil will.
So what can be done to ensure the statistics 30 years from now make happier reading? Above all, schools must guard against complacency. Despite being banned in any new building since 1999, asbestos remains present in over half of UK schools. It is also a material that becomes more dangerous as it deteriorates. The fact that many schools built during the asbestos boom of the 1960s and '70s are now in disrepair makes them particularly high-risk.
A professional survey is the best way to establish where asbestos is present and assess its condition. Schools are then required to create a detailed management plan. Guidance from the Health and Safety Executive states that if asbestos is in a good state, it is usually best left undisturbed. "But it is important to assess whether it might be vulnerable to future damage, and to monitor it regularly," says David Bryant of HSE. "Anyone likely to disturb the asbestos must be made aware of its presence."
But do these guidelines go far enough? Campaigner Michael Lees argues that they don't. His wife, Gina, died of mesothelioma aged 51, after exposure to asbestos during her teaching career. "In one recent case, exposure was linked to children hiding their bags behind asbestos panels," says Mr Lees. He would like to see all teachers given training so they understand the risks of a classroom containing asbestos - where just sticking a pin into a wall panel could release lethal fibres.
In the past, he says, schools have been "staggeringly secretive" about asbestos - a view confirmed by Caroline Pinfold, a partner at Irwin Mitchell solictors. She cites the case of teacher Joan Henry, who died of mesothelioma in 2007. "Staff were never told there was asbestos in the school," she says. "It only came to light after a teacher sent a sample of the staffroom ceiling for analysis."
Ms Pinfold says schools must follow HSE guidelines carefully to avoid liability. "If official guidance is adhered to, then the school or authority cannot be held accountable." Despite the need for rigour, some schools remain blase. Last year, 10 local authorities failed to meet required standards to the HSE's satisfaction and were issued with improvement notices, and there are also concerns that the independent sector remains largely unregulated.
WHAT TO DO NOW
- Duty holders (those responsible for the building) are legally required to have an asbestos management plan.
- Monitor the condition of asbestos regularly.
- Keep staff and parents informed of any risks.
- Removal of asbestos must be done by licensed professionals, out of school hours.
- Full details of the HSE guidance can be found at www.hse.gov.ukasbestosinformation.htm.