NUT debates asbestos in schools

Asbestos: £10m in compensation

ASBESTOS remains a killer in schools and there is simply no evidence to support the Government’s case that it is safer to manage asbestos than to remove it.

That’s according to the National Union of Teachers, who held their conference in Cardiff over the Easter break.


Commenting after the debate on Motion 26, Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, the largest teachers’ union, said: “The continuing presence of asbestos in nearly 90% of our schools is a scandal and is risking the lives of children and staff. In 2014 there were 17 teacher deaths from mesothelioma. Children are even more at risk because of the long latency of asbestos diseases such as mesothelioma.

“The Government and the Health and Safety Executive do not acknowledge that there is a serious problem with asbestos in schools and as a consequence there is no political will to remove it.

“The findings of a survey of NUT members provide no comfort for the Government and HSE’s view that the current policy of managing asbestos in situ is working.

“An NUT survey on asbestos in schools shows that nearly 50% of respondents did not know whether their school contained asbestos and only 2% of respondents said that parents had been given information about the presence of asbestos in the school.

“This is deeply worrying given that the majority of schools (86%) do contain asbestos. Parents, children and teachers should not be kept in the dark about this issue that has serious and life threatening consequences to those exposed to it.

“The NUT will continue to work with its partner unions through the Joint Union Asbestos Committee. We are calling for Government to undertake a national audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in our schools and to begin a long-term phased removal of asbestos from our schools, with schools in the worst condition prioritised. This ticking time bomb has to be eradicated from our schools.”


The union has called for asbestos’ removal must take place under strictly controlled conditions and claims it is misleading and scaremongering to suggest that removal might be unsafe.

At least 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980, and 205 of these deaths have occurred since 2001.

The real numbers are likely to be much higher because these figures do not include anyone over the age of 75.

Teachers are now dying from mesothelioma at an average of 17 per year, up from three per year during 1980-85.

Much of the asbestos in schools was installed during the 1940s -1970s, and is in a deteriorating state. When asbestos is in poor condition, fibres are more likely to be released. Therefore, phased removal, with priority given to the most dangerous materials, is the practical solution and is the only way to ensure that schools are safe.

Some 86% of schools contain asbestos, and, as all children attend school, the numbers facing potential exposure are huge.


Professor Julian Peto, a leading epidemiologist, has estimated that between 200 and 300 people die each year of mesothelioma because of exposure to asbestos when they were a pupil.

Schools are different to other workplaces as children are more at risk from asbestos exposure. This is because they have longer lives ahead in which to develop asbestos-related disease. The greater risk to children was confirmed by the Department of Health’s Committee on Carcinogenicity in June 2013.

A child exposed at age five is five times more likely to develop mesothelioma than someone exposed at age 30.

Freedom of Information (FOI) requests submitted to all local authorities in England and Wales have revealed that, in the last decade, over £10m has been paid in compensation to former pupils and members of staff exposed to asbestos in schools.


An NUT survey carried out in March 2015 found that 44% of respondents had not even been told whether their school is one of the 86% which do contain asbestos.

Inspections carried out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) over the last few years found flaws in asbestos management in a number of schools that have led to enforcement action. Since relatively few schools have been inspected, this begs the question, what about the rest?

Asbestos management can be expensive and time-consuming and requires a sustained commitment, even when changes to personnel take place, or when schools convert to academy status. The alternative – removal – means the problem is dealt with once and for all.

In 2016, the DfE surveyed all head teachers about asbestos management in their school. Unfortunately, as the survey was not compulsory, only 25% of schools responded. Of those that did, nearly 30% needed to improve their asbestos management and 19% were not compliant with the Control of Asbestos Regulations. This included 2% of schools which gave serious cause for concern.

In March 2017, it was reported to the Public Accounts Committee that pupils at a school in Sunderland had to be ‘hosed down’ on more than one occasion because asbestos fibres were released from ceiling tiles.


The findings of the Government’s review of its asbestos in schools policy, published on March 12, 2015, were a step in the right direction with a new focus on training for staff and accountability of duty holders.

What was lacking, however, is a long-term strategy for the gradual eradication of asbestos from schools.

£300,000 was spent removing asbestos from royal households in 2014-15, and a further £150m has been earmarked for royal refurbishment works, which includes asbestos removal.

Likewise, restoration works to the Houses of Parliament are scheduled to cost between £3.5b and £5.7b, a sum which includes asbestos removal.

The NUT has asked: if asbestos removal is good enough for royal households and politicians – why should pupils and teachers receive anything less than this?

The NUT has recommended that all teachers should be aware if their school contains asbestos, and specifically where it is located, to avoid unintentionally disturbing it.

If there is no asbestos survey available, teachers should ensure that this information is provided to them by the dutyholder/headteacher.