Repeal of schools-building programme raises asbestos alarm
The cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) Programme could increase the risk of children, teachers and support staff being exposed to asbestos, TUC union officials have warned.
Many existing school buildings are likely to contain asbestos, as they were built before 1970, when the material was in common use. As these buildings fall into disrepair, the risk of asbestos exposure increases significantly.
The number of teachers who have died from the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma has increased by more than 300 per cent in the last 20 years, according to the TUC campaigners. More worryingly, they point out that children exposed to asbestos are five times more likely to develop mesothelioma than adult teachers in the same environment.
The TUC Asbestos Support and Campaign Group is further alarmed by the fact that many schools have spent little on maintenance, on the promise that they would be part of the previous Labour government’s BSF programme, which aimed to rebuild or renew nearly every secondary school in England.
The Group claims that new Education Secretary Michael Gove’s decision to halt the BSF scheme has scuppered the plans of nearly 100 schools in the north of England (6 in Cumbria and 93 in the North East) to move forward with a new-build programme.
As public spending is being squeezed, the Northern TUC Asbestos Campaign Group is calling for continued investment in school buildings to prevent asbestos exposure.
Kevin Rowan, regional secretary of the Northern TUC, said: “Many schools in the region are in a terrible state of disrepair. Teachers, governing bodies, pupils and parents have been waiting desperately for new building work to take place, to allow them to enjoy working and learning in a decent, safe and healthy environment.
“Now they continue to face risks of serious and potentially fatal hazards due to the lack of investment in the maintenance and improvement of their schools. The Government must make funds available now to all schools who need it, to secure a better and safer environment for children, teachers and school staff alike.”
Mick Lyons, national executive member of teachers’ union NASUWT for the North East, described the presence of asbestos in schools as “a ticking time bomb”.
He added: “Over 190 colleagues have died through asbestos exposure across the country so far, with the unfortunate spectre of many more to come. Scrapping the BSF programme has left older schools – and those who have to spend time in them – extremely vulnerable.”
Paul Rowen MP, who served as the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson on health and safety prior to the formation of the coalition government, told SHP that he feels the BSF programme is “an expensive way to remodel and refurbish schools” but stressed that the removal of asbestos in schools should be “an immediate priority”.
He went on: “The Government needs to stop brushing it under the carpet, which has been done by successive governments in the past, and accept that removal of asbestos has to be done. You either do it as part of the Building Schools for the Future programme, or you do it as part of another programme – but it needs to be done.”