Dilapidated schools `make children ill'

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The Independent Online
BSchools are decaying danger zones, where infestations of rats and cockroaches are common and pupils and staff fall sick with dysentery and other diseases, a national survey has revealed.

More than a quarter of schools have been forced to close dilapidated buildings, and 18.7 per cent have had pupils or staff suffering from illness or injury linked to poor conditions, according to the report by the National Union of Teachers.

The survey covered 6,500 schools, 27 per cent of all those in England and Wales, including inner-city, suburban and rural areas.

In 303 schools inadequate ventilation or damp has caused an increase in the number pupils suffering from asthma and other breathing problems and in 110 there had been outbreaks of hygiene-related sickness, including hepatitis A and dysentery.

One in 20 have been forced to close all or part of their premises because of asbestos. The union is taking legal action against the London Borough of Greenwich after a teacher, Shirley Gibson, died from cancer allegedly caused by asbestos poisoning contracted in the classroom. The union is seeking compensation on behalf of Ms Gibson's estate.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the union, described the findings as "frightening and shocking''. He said: "It is quite clear from these results that pupils and teachers are exposed daily to physical and medical risk from unsafe and unhygienic buildings.

"Parents will not find it acceptable that their children have to contend with infestations of cockroaches or rats and to learn in dilapidated, dangerous conditions,'' he said

The report found that in more than a third of schools, teachers believed the poor state of buildings was directly hindering children's education.

Mr McAvoy said the Government was warned eight years ago that crumbling schools would cost £2bn to repair. "More than a quarter have been forced to close all or part of their buildings to allow emergency remedial work. That emergency work does not cover getting rid of mobile classrooms nor stop water pouring down walls. It ignores hundreds of children being educated in wooden huts and being forced to use outside toilets which do not offer safe and clean environments.''

The union claims the morale of staff has suffered in two out of five schools. It is seeking a government audit of school buildings, a study of the impact of poor buildings and inadequate conditions, a detailed examination by the Health and Safety Executive of the risks involved and a commitment from all political parties on a programme of rebuilding and refurbishment.

The results of the survey will further fuel the spending row that erupted last month over the funding of teachers' pay.

Yesterday the Department for Education defended its record. A spokesman said: "Local education authorities and governors are responsible for the proper upkeep of their buildings. Between 1990/91 and 1993/94 LEAs have spent £2.7bn. on their schools. These are substantial sums and have been supported by a further £426m increase for 1995/96. This re- presents a 6 per cent increase on this year ... despite a tight spending round.''