Inspectors say schools fail to protect pupils and staff from asbestos

Campaigners demand ministers act, as report shows management of the lethal material is 'unacceptable'
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The Independent Online

Asbestos tests on dozens of schools have revealed "unacceptable" safety standards that could be putting thousands of children and teachers at risk.

An inspection report obtained by The Independent on Sunday shows a grim picture of the lack of controls on the potentially deadly substance lurking in the fabric of thousands of schools. Analysts who conducted the nationwide survey found that too few head teachers manage asbestos properly; many rely on containment plans more than a decade old and some have never drawn up plans at all.

The audit, by the Asbestos Testing and Consultancy Association, also found that some schools had asbestos particles in the air; some allowed workmen to disturb the material and others simply didn't know the rules for managing the threat from building projects.

The IoS revealed last November that campaigners had arranged inspections of 100 English schools to demonstrate the threat from asbestos which they blame for a series of illnesses – including the cancer mesothelioma – which claim the lives of at least 16 teachers a year. MPs, union leaders, and families persuaded the association to carry out the tests for free, after the Government refused funding.

A preliminary report said that most schools are failing to comply with their legal "duty to manage" the asbestos, that the responsibility for ensuring safety was dogged by confusion, and that staff training was "either poor or non-existent". The report concluded: "It is not therefore surprising that the standards of asbestos management were unacceptable in the majority of schools. This should have been identified and corrected."

The majority of schools are thought to contain asbestos, which was used as insulation or fire protection from the 1940s until the 1980s. Local councils must keep records of how many schools contain asbestos, but they do not have to know what state it is in. They have largely opted to leave it in place, rather than risk further contamination by removing it. However, campaigners have warned that it poses a greater risk over time as it is disturbed by wear and tear and renovations, and releases fibres which could be lethal if inhaled.

The Lib Dem MP, Paul Rowen, who has led parliamentary demands for action against asbestos, said: "Only the Government can resolve this. We need it to show the political will and the funding to ensure this problem is tackled once and for all."

The Health and Safety Executive insists there is no evidence that teachers are at increased risk.