The lives of pupils and teachers are being put at risk because the Government is "burying its head in the sand" over the dangers of asbestos in as many as 13,000 schools, MPs and medical experts have warned.
Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, is facing demands to carry out a nationwide asbestos audit to gauge the extent of the problem and assess the health hazards to staff and children.
Campaigners are also pressing for a publicity drive to raise awareness of the risk from mesothelioma, the aggressive and incurable lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.
The disease claims more than 2,000 lives a year in Britain. Most victims were industrial workers with prolonged contact with asbestos, but increasing numbers of teachers and school caretakers, cleaners and secretaries are also being struck down.
MPs and peers have written to Mr Balls calling for him to allocate some of the £1.75bn set aside this week for school refurbishments to be used to send urgent advice to heads and governors on dealing with asbestos.
The substance, which becomes highly dangerous when it begins to deteriorate, was once valued for its qualities of insulation and fireproofing. It was widely used in public buildings for three decades, including the vast majority of 13,000 schools built between 1945 and 1974. Strict controls on asbestos were imposed 30 years ago and it is now completely banned as a building material.
Government policy is for schools to manage asbestos – for instance by sealing it with silicone – rather than remove it. But campaigners warn that banging school doors, bumping into walls or even sticking drawing-pins into walls can release large quantities of asbestos fibres into the atmosphere.
John Edwards, a consultant surgeon who is chairman of the British Mesothelioma Interest Group, said thousands of schools were "bound to be riddled" with asbestos. He attacked ministers' refusal to follow the lead of the United States and conduct a national audit of asbestos in schools, saying: "This is potentially putting our teachers and children at risk."