Delays to the project, largely due to it not being mandatory, mean that the findings, now not due until Spring 2019, may come too late to properly influence next year’s comprehensive spending review. Schools Minister Nick Gibb has stated that 68% of the 17,000 schools that have taken part in the survey were deemed to be compliant with their legal duties. This means that responsible bodies have only provided assurances on around 11,500 schools – approximately half of all schools in England – despite the survey deadline already having been extended twice last summer, and now for a third time until February 2019.
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “This is totally unacceptable. We already know that nearly 90% of schools contain asbestos and that as asbestos ages, it deteriorates and becomes more difficult to manage. There is already plenty of evidence about poor standards of asbestos management across many local authorities and academy trusts. What we urgently need is earmarked funding to make our schools safe from this scourge.”
Increasing numbers of teachers and school staff are dying from the cancer mesothelioma because they were exposed to asbestos while working in schools. In just one year, from 2015 to 2016, the number of school staff who died from mesothelioma has increased by a third – from 30 to 40 deaths. These deaths are the tip of the iceberg – around 200-300 adults are estimated to die every year because they were exposed to asbestos while a pupil at school.
The Government knows there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos and children are far more likely to develop mesothelioma after exposure than adults. It is therefore shocking that the UK Government has still not required as many other countries have done, far lower control levels and limits for long term environmental exposure to asbestos. It is appalling that there is no earmarked funding for asbestos removal and encapsulation.
Our schools are crumbling - 60% of the school estate is more than 40 years old and much of it is in a state of decline. These conditions make it impossible to manage asbestos and are putting the lives of pupils and staff at risk.
The Chancellor’s recent announcement of £400m for ‘little extras’ doesn’t even touch the surface. Instead, it is an insult to the pupils and school staff whose lives continue to be put at risk by asbestos riddled buildings.
Even worse, forecasts show that the money allocated for school buildings is set to decrease - at the very point it needs a significant and sustained boost.
The only way to stop the needless deaths of former pupils and school staff once and for all is for the Government to commit to the phased removal of asbestos from all schools, starting with the most dangerous first.
The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) was formed in 2010 and is a trade union campaigning committee comprising eight unions: Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL); National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT); National Education Union (NEU); NASUWT; UCU, Voice; plus the education sections of UNISON, Unite, and the GMB. The Group’s objective is to make all UK schools and colleges safe from the dangers of asbestos. All the unions in JUAC are also members of the Asbestos in Schools (AIS) campaign.
JUAC is a non-party political group and both JUAC and AIS have a common interest in making UK schools and colleges safe from the dangers of asbestos, both for staff and pupils. In the long-term we wish to see all asbestos removed from all schools and colleges. However, we recognise that, realistically, the focus in the short and medium-term must be on safe management of asbestos in schools and colleges.
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