fresh air

@TheJUAC calls to remove asbestos in schools on #CleanAirDay 2021 

The Joint Union Asbestos Committee is today (17 Jun) marking Clean Air Day 2021 with the launch of a new campaigning website.

The impact of the pandemic on children and young people cannot be overstated. As schools continue to support pupils’ return, it is critical that we can ensure that children and young people are able to return to a safe, clean and healthy environment where they can learn and play safely.

Yet we know this isn’t always the case – some twenty years on from the full ban on asbestos in construction, its presence in many older school buildings remains a national problem, with the latest DfE figures estimating that 83.5% of schools in England contain asbestos, in some shape or form.

Much of the school estate is old and in a deteriorating condition, this makes it even harder to avoid asbestos fibres from being released.

According to figures from the ONS, since 2001 at least 305 teaching and education professionals have died of mesothelioma, a cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos. Whilst there are not official figures for children and young people, we know they are more vulnerable to asbestos exposure, in part due to the increased life expectancy of children compared to adults, and the long latency period of the disease.

Given the very real risk, significant and urgent Government investment is needed to fund its phased removal from all school buildings, starting with the most dangerous first. This is the only way to ensure the safety of school staff and pupils.

The JUAC campaign is calling for:

  • An independent review of the Government’s current policy of managing asbestos in-situ instead of removing it.
  • A funded programme for the phased removal of all asbestos starting with the most dangerous, with completion no later than 2028.
  • A Government audit which collects and shares data centrally on the extent, type and condition of asbestos in all educational establishments.
  • Support for duty holders by providing funded mandatory training, and adequate support and funding from the Government for asbestos management and removal.  
  • Proactive inspections by HSE to ensure that educational establishments are managing asbestos effectively.
  • The Government, in line with commitments made by the Government in the 2015 Asbestos Policy Review, to prioritise the development of school specific risk assessments, asbestos air tests and environmental levels which take into account the vulnerability of children to asbestos exposure.

Tackling asbestos in schools must be made “an urgent priority” and considered as part of the wider air pollution campaigning work.

John McClean, Chair of JUAC, said: 

“The continuing presence of asbestos in so many of our schools is a disgrace, when the risks to children and adults are so well known. Effective Government action to tackle this is long overdue. A phased programme of removal, starting with the most dangerous first, is the only way forward.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“The impact of the pandemic on children has been huge; we need to do everything we can to make sure we safeguard their futures. One vital way of doing that is to ensure they return to a safe, clean and healthy school environment where they can learn, play and thrive. With asbestos in the majority of schools that isn’t guaranteed. We’d urge the government to invest in safe school buildings just as they invest in recovery.”

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of NASUWT, The Teachers’ Union, said: 

“It is a continuing national scandal that more than twenty years after asbestos was finally banned there has been no concerted effort to remove asbestos from schools. Even now, on Clean Air Day, hundreds of thousands of teachers and pupils will be attending schools containing this killer fibre, and could at any time be subject to an accidental exposure. This is unacceptable, as is the Government’s continued failure to act. Asbestos is lethal. The only safe asbestos is removed asbestos.”

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“On Clean Air Day we remember the right of every human to breathe clean air, free of contaminants such as asbestos particles, in our schools and colleges. It is disgraceful that school staff and former pupils continue to die because they were exposed to asbestos in our educational establishments. The Government’s policy of leaving asbestos in situ is clearly not working.  The NEU is proud to be associated with the new JUAC website which will help spread information and resources about asbestos in educational buildings and what must be done to eradicate it.”

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: 

“It really is beyond time that the government got a grip on the problem of asbestos contained in school buildings. It is simply not good enough for them to continue to dismiss this issue by saying it shouldn’t pose a risk as long as it is managed. The fact that it is present in buildings at all means that there is always the potential for it to be disturbed and for it to cause damage to the health of staff and pupils. We understand that there are cost implications but it would be a good investment to remove this problem once and for all.”

The Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC) is a non-party political group that seeks to protect education workers and children from the dangers of asbestos by raising awareness and campaigning for improved asbestos management in schools.

The JUAC members are representatives from the following education trades unions: ASCL, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON, Unite the Union, UCU, Voice.

Chronic lack of investment in school buildings - Asbestos related deaths among teachers averages 17 per year

10th Dec 2019: Analysis by the National Education Union shows that the inadequacy of the Government schools building programme.  

The Conservative’s programme is so inadequate that at the current rate of progress it will take a further 361 years to renew the school estate.  

The Government is cutting spending on school buildings by a further £600m in 2020, on top of the £500m cut from this year’s budget.

Both the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos commit themselves to modernising existing schools and building enough new capacity.

A Guardian story on Sunday (8 Dec) revealed one in six schools in England require urgent repairs, 3,731 schools are in need of immediate repair and a further 9,872 schools need work in the next 1 – 2 years.

Responding to the Guardian investigation based on the Condition Data Collection (CDC), which found one in six school buildings in England require urgent repairs:

Layla Moran100x100

Liberal Democrat Shadow Education Secretary Layla Moran said: 

“It is scandalous that children across the country are being forced to sit in crumbling school buildings, potentially putting them at risk.

“The Conservatives have continually failed to address this problem. They do not care about our children’s education and are happy for them to learn in Dickensian conditions.

“The Liberal Democrats have a plan to properly invest in schools, give local authorities the powers and funding they need to make vital changes and build a brighter future for our country.” 

mary boustedMary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union said,

“Government austerity has deprived thousands of children of the opportunity to learn in decent, modern, fit for purpose buildings, instead condemning them to be educated in crumbling and in many cases unsafe premises. We cannot allow this situation to continue - immediate investment is required to bring all schools up to a decent standard’.  

State of School and College Buildings

A snapshot survey of 670 members of the National Education Union (25 Nov) highlights the challenges facing schools and colleges in ensuring their buildings are well maintained and provide a safe and decent environment for teaching and learning. This survey* reflects on a period of real-terms cuts in education, since 2015, which have put a severe squeeze on the ability of schools and colleges to afford repairs.

This survey was conducted just days after the Department for Education announced a £400m investment pot that schools and colleges can apply to draw upon for building repairs, but with the proviso that this only applies to academies and sixth form colleges.

This comes after the scrapping of Building Schools for the Future in 2010, cancelling 700 building projects at a stroke - very many of them local-authority-maintained. Today’s survey clearly demonstrates that just within the last four years, the state of schools and colleges has taken a turn for the worse.

Reacting to the NEU survey, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“It is quite intolerable that schools and colleges are having to forego building repairs and maintenance for years due to a lack of funding. Our children and young people deserve to be taught in buildings that are fit for purpose. It is simply not good enough that for so many children and staff, leaking ceilings and rotting windows and crumbling walls are their daily environment.

“This disastrous trajectory of decay has gone on long enough. Promises, and not just empty ones, need to be made by political parties as to how this will be resolved. We look forward to hearing serious commitments from each of the political parties, so that voters can make an informed decision. If you value education, you must vote for education.”

Key findings:

  • 47% of members said that their school or college buildings were not fit for purpose, with 65% blaming school funding cuts as the reason why.
  • Over a fifth (21%) said that parts or all of their building have had to be closed because of disrepair over the past 5 years.
  • 22% agreed that the state of their school/college buildings leads to an unsafe environment for pupils and staff.
  • A quarter (26%) confirmed they are delaying turning on the heating for winter in their school/college.
  • 35% said that the situation had changed for their worse in their school/college for buildings, facilities and maintenance since 2015, with just 13% seeing an improvement.
  • The main issues raised were classrooms that are too hot or cold (74%), leaking ceilings/roofs (44%), crumbling walls/holes in walls (31%), and damp (21%). Members also noted poor ventilation (36%), electrical problems (17%) and faulty boilers/heaters (19%).

“Air conditioning broken for two years in computer room.”

“Birds getting in through holes in roof, holes in walls bring picked at by generations of students.”

“New build constantly postponed for years so old buildings still in use and not fit for purpose.”

“The new building has been built cheaply. The walls move and in winter are freezing, in summer too hot.”

“When it rains heavily, water floods my classroom and it comes through the fire escape. Water also comes through the roof.”

“My classroom roof leaks, and I have to have a bucket - textbooks and exercise books have been wrecked.”

“We also have some classrooms without ceilings.”

“Boilers that only work some of the time. Extraction fans that don't work.”

“There is simply no money left for school repairs or improvements.”

“Used to be high school for 300 pupils now part of school with 1200 pupils. Stairs get jammed and are unsafe. Some mobile classrooms in use should be condemned.”


The survey also serves as a reminder of the ongoing presence of asbestos in our schools. 86% of schools contain asbestos, yet today’s survey finds that just 21% of teachers – one fifth – were aware they were working in a school with asbestos.

“We know we have asbestos in our school but despite repeated requests we are not told where.”

“We currently don't have properly working fire alarms as these were renovated over summer but the builders wouldn't drill into any walls as they're all asbestos.”

“Science block just shut down because of asbestos.”

The National Education Union, as part of the Joint Union Asbestos Committee, has called upon successive Governments to take action on asbestos. Schools, parents and children deserve nothing less than a detailed national survey of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools.

The Government’s line has been that it is safer to manage asbestos than to remove it, but this is simply untenable. At least 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma since 1980, and 205 of those deaths have occurred since 2001.

Asbestos related deaths average at 17 per year, up from three per year during 1980-85.

*The survey of NEU members was conducted between 1-4 November 2019.

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