Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Asbestos in Schools: A Missed Opportunity

Towards the end of last year Cwmcarn school in Wales was closed after a structural survey identified asbestos in the main block. The report by Santia Asbestos Management Limited concluded that the health risk posed by asbestos was so great that the school should be demolished.

The dangers posed by asbestos have long been known - and they remain a real issue. In the past 10 days Bronglais Hospital in Wales has been in the news, after a critical review of its management of asbestos. It is feared that up to 30 maintenance staff at the Aberystwyth hospital could have been exposed to asbestos.

In light of any number of similar stories and the wealth of available data on how carcinogenic asbestos dust is, you would be forgiven for believing that the government, in its recently commissioned review of the buildings that comprise the education estate, would put 'Asbestos Risks and Management' at the top of its assessment list. This is not the case. In fact, assessment of asbestos is barely even a footnote to the brief. Our schools are being reviewed by sundry experts, at taxpayer expense, and yet clear and identifiable risks to their constituents - children, the most vulnerable sector of society - are not being considered.

A Flawed Survey

Let’s rewind to the genesis to what is now known as the Property Data Survey Programme (PDSP). As part of the government's response to the Review of Education Capital in July 2011, the Department for Education (DfE) agreed that urgent work should be undertaken to collect up-to-date information on the building condition of the education estate. Collection of such data had ceased in 2005. The aim, as stated by the DfE, was to "deliver the most accurate, consistent and comparable data set possible on the condition of the English schools estate."

In September 2011, Partnerships for Schools (now the Education Funding Agency) was commissioned by the DfE to deliver the PDSP. Some 23,000 educational establishments throughout England would be surveyed in order "to ensure future capital maintenance funding is targeted to meet the most urgent condition needs." Work duly began in early 2012. The various surveying companies contracted are expected to complete their analyses in summer, possibly autumn, this year. Their findings will be used to calculate the 2014-15 capital funding allocations. The government then plans to continue with a rolling 20% sample of the education estate each year, so as to enable "a credible full picture of the estate’s condition every five years."

The word "credible" beggars belief. How can the PDSP be regarded as credible if it fails to include an assessment of asbestos in schools?

The PDSP will not assess the danger of asbestos in schools - but it does pay it some lip service. As such, the survey will only seek confirmation that the school has carried out its statutory obligations, i.e. maintaining an up-to-date Asbestos Management Plan and/or Asbestos Register. It will not direct them to the DfE website and relevant guidance. No detailed assessment of the documents will be carried out by the surveyor but if, presumably because they are blindingly obvious rather than carefully investigated, the surveyor identifies any asbestos issues, he or she will bring them to the attention of the school. Each school is then to be left to undertake any corrective measures. This is in keeping with the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (previously 2006) and related legislation, which leaves responsibility for asbestos firmly with local authorities and schools.

In other words, when it comes to asbestos the PDSP passes the buck. It amounts to a huge missed opportunity to determine the scale of the asbestos problem in England's schools and educational establishments. Despite spending millions of pounds on the surveys (£500-£750 for nurseries, £750-£1,200 per 17,000 plus primary schools and £2,000-£3,000 per 3000 secondary schools), no central information will be gathered on the scale of the asbestos problem in our schools.

And Some Flawed Regulations 

Perhaps the government feels that express engagement with asbestos in the PDSP is not merely an extra cost but unwarranted. After all, the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (which updated previous asbestos regulations to take account of EU Directive 2009/148/EC), articulate the so-called "basic principle" that "asbestos is only dangerous when disturbed. If it is safely managed and contained, it doesn't present a health hazard". Two other basic principles hold that asbestos should not be removed unnecessarily ("removing it can be more dangerous than leaving it in place and managing it") and "not all asbestos materials present the same risk. The measures that need to be taken for controlling the risks from materials such as pipe insulation are different from those needed in relation to asbestos cement."

When it comes to schools, the basic principles are seriously flawed. Schools are full of people who, by definition, act in spontaneous and unpredictable ways. It is ludicrous to expect children not to disturb asbestos.

It is tragedy that we are saddled with such inadequate primary legislation but t is all the more disturbing that the PDSP will not collate vitally needed data on asbestos in schools and make it available nationally. Please join me in urging the government to reassess the brief underpinning the PDSP so that our children's lives - and the lives of those who teach them - can be better protected.