Campaigners are to carry out secret tests on dozens of English schools this summer to highlight the threat of asbestos which, they claim, is damaging hundreds of thousands of pupils and teachers every year.
MPs, leaders of the teaching unions, and families of teachers killed by asbestos-related diseases have arranged the tests, claiming ministers and local councils are not doing enough to identify – and safely remove – the substance.
The move comes as government documents revealed that ministers have been warned that a national audit of asbestos in thousands of British schools could spark a "panic reaction".
The majority of school buildings in this country are thought to contain asbestos, which was used as insulation or fire protection from the 1940s to the 1980s. Increasingly, disturbed by wear and tear and renovations, it released fibres which could be lethal if inhaled.
Asbestos-related illnesses including mesothelioma, a very deadly form of cancer, are believed to kill at least 16 teachers every year – and the figures are rising. But, although the Prime Minister has met campaigners to hear their concerns, the Government has so far refused to order councils to carry out a nationwide audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools.
Earlier this month, the head of the British Safety Council warned that teachers and pupils were living with a "deadly legacy". Brian Nimick, in his final speech as chief executive, said it was "unacceptable" that there had not yet been a national audit in schools.
The documents obtained by the campaign group Asbestos in Schools show that ministers were warned more than a decade ago that a national audit "could lead to a panic reaction" and that it would also have "significant cost implications". Campaigner Michael Lees, whose wife, Gina, died of mesothelioma aged 51, after teaching for 30 years, said the financial costs of tackling the problem were still overriding health issues: "Some local authorities are on top of asbestos management, whereas others have given less priority to maintaining school buildings. He added that in some schools standards of asbestos management "are dangerous".
Local authorities must keep records of how many of their schools contain asbestos, but they do not necessarily know what state it is in. Freedom of information requests have established that up to 90 per cent of school buildings contain the substance – including 903 out of 1,043 schools in Greater Manchester and 1,499 of 1,606 schools in Kent, Sussex and Surrey. Fewer than a third of councils have responded to an emergency Department of Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) survey asking for details of asbestos left in their schools, five months after the deadline.
But the campaigners have persuaded consultants to carry out tests free in up to 100 schools this summer, after the Government refused to fund the project. They will use the results to convince the Government of the need for action.
Liberal Democrat MP Paul Rowen, who has led parliamentary demands for action against asbestos, said: "There is no safe limit for exposure to asbestos. Successive secretaries of state have evaded their responsibilities ... by putting all responsibility on the shoulders of local authorities .... We need an urgent review of the state of this asbestos in our schools, and plans for its removal."
A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) spokesman said there was no evidence that teachers are at increased risk. He added: "HSE is working to ensure those responsible for asbestos in system-built schools are managing the risks in compliance with the legal requirements."