Is my child at risk from asbestos in their school?

If you are a parent, you are likely to consider it a bare-minimum requirement to be able to expect your child to be safe when attending school. So, the fact that asbestos remains present in a large number of school buildings up and down the UK, even in the 2020s, might be alarming to you.

So, what do you need to know about the situation with asbestos in schools at the moment? Could any asbestos in your child’s school be posing a genuine health risk? And if so, what actions should you take in response to this?

Is my child at risk from asbestos in their school?

What is the current status of asbestos in schools?

According to UK Department for Education (DfE) guidance that was last updated in October 2020, “most school and college buildings contain asbestos.” Indeed, it has been estimated in the relatively recent past that asbestos is present in more than 75% of state schools in Britain.

Asbestos is controversial and feared because of the association between this once widely used building material, and risks of ill health, including frequently fatal diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer.

If asbestos fibres are released into the air, someone nearby – such as pupils and teachers in the given school building – could be of risk of ingesting or inhaling them. This, in turn – subject to a long latency period of about 30 to 40 years – could eventually lead to the given person developing a life-shortening asbestos-related disease.

The importation and use of asbestos in the UK was finally banned in 1999. So, if your child’s school was built in or after the year 2000, you can be confident that it is unlikely to contain asbestos.

If, however, a given school building was constructed prior to the year 2000, there is a strong chance that asbestos will be present.

Understanding the risks of asbestos in schools

It is important to take a proportionate and reasoned view of the situation of asbestos in schools today. While asbestos does indeed continue to be present in many school buildings in the UK, the fact of asbestos existing in a building at your child’s school does not automatically mean it poses a significant risk to their health.

According to the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as long as asbestos in a school is in good condition, properly managed, and unlikely to be disturbed or damaged, it will not represent a significant risk to health. So, it is unlikely that teachers and pupils simply going about their usual everyday activities in a school will be at risk.

The HSE has said that where it has undertaken inspections of schools, it has found that most such institutions have good standards for managing asbestos in their buildings. This is further ensured by the stringent rules now in place for controlling asbestos in non-domestic premises, including schools, as set out in the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 (CAR 2012).

However, the risk of asbestos exposure being extremely low in many schools does not mean there is zero chance of exposure ever occurring in a school.

There are certain circumstances in which disturbance or damage can be caused to asbestos materials on a school site, such as when maintenance and/or construction work are taking place. CAR 2012 contains measures to help guard against this risk, so the mere fact of such work taking place on school premises does not mean asbestos will be disturbed.

The HSE has also stated that teachers and pupils should not engage in activities that could result in damage to asbestos-containing materials (ACMs), such as pinning or tacking work to insulation board or ceiling tiles.

How did asbestos get in schools?

For much of the 20th century, asbestos was routinely used as a building material in the UK, for domestic and non-domestic premises alike. It was a highly regarded material for construction purposes, thanks to advantages such as its affordability, easy availability, strength, fire resistance, and effectiveness as an insulator.

As a result of these qualities, asbestos was used in many products that were once integral in the construction of schools. Such ACMs included:

  • Asbestos lagging, as used on pipes and boilers as thermal insulation
  • Sprayed asbestos, used for partitioning, ducts, fire protection, and thermal insulation
  • Asbestos insulating board (AIB), used for partitioning, ducts, fire protection, and thermal insulation
  • Floor tiles
  • Cement roofing and guttering
  • Textured coatings
  • Some ceiling tiles.

What is the school’s responsibility?

As mentioned above, there is legislation in the UK – the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012, or CAR 2012 – which sets out a “duty to manage” asbestos in non-domestic premises, such as a school.

The “duty to manage” asbestos outlined by regulation 4 of CAR 2012, is directed at those who manage the given non-domestic premises. The dutyholder will therefore be the owner of the premises, or the person or organisation that is clearly responsible for the maintenance or repair of the premises.

In the case of the majority of schools, it is the employer that will be the dutyholder. However, this means the dutyholder will not necessarily be the school itself. If, for instance, the given school is a community school, community special school, voluntary-controlled school, or maintained nursery school, it is the local authority that is the employer – and therefore the dutyholder.

But on the other hand, for voluntary-aided and foundation schools, it will be the school governors that will be considered the “employers”.

Whoever it is that has the “duty to manage” asbestos under CAR 2012, they will need to fulfil certain requirements. Those requirements will include taking reasonable steps to determine whether there are ACMs present on the school premises, and the location, amount, and condition of any such ACMs. The dutyholder will also be expected to create and keep up to date a record of these ACMs, in addition to preparing a plan detailing how the risks arising from the ACMs will be managed.

What happens when asbestos is found in schools?

The HSE has said that all schools must have a site-specific asbestos management plan. So, such a plan should already be in place at your child’s school, although there may be a need for the school to update it, or to arrange for an asbestos reinspection survey or management review to be undertaken.

The asbestos management plan that the school has in place will need to make clear what measures will be used in order to manage any on-site asbestos. The uppermost priority should always be to keep people using the school premises safe from the risk of breathing in or ingesting asbestos fibres.

An asbestos management plan for a school necessitates setting out specific actions, instead of simply stating generalised aspirations or principles. So, the school’s action plans for asbestos on its premises will need to include one or more of the following:

  • Leaving the ACMs in place, but taking steps to maintain them over time
  • Carrying out repairs to ACMs
  • Encapsulating the ACMs
  • Enclosing the ACMs
  • Removing the ACMs altogether.

The HSE has said it is possible for the condition of ACMs to be effectively monitored through a system of visual inspection and checking for signs of damage.

The health and safety regulator has stated that if any given ACMs do not show visible damage, such as any signs of visible debris, dust, or asbestos material being in poor condition, the potential for asbestos fibres to be released is “extremely low”.

So, you must not presume that if your child’s school has left asbestos in place, this automatically means the school must be failing to manage the asbestos or comply with CAR 2012. The dutyholder might be managing asbestos on-site safely and responsibly, having been advised by a professional that the ACMs can be left in place and managed in this way.

So, is my child at risk from asbestos?

The good news is that even if asbestos is present on the premises of your child’s school – as is likely to be the case for buildings dating from before the year 2000 – provided that the material is in good condition, it can be regarded as being in safe condition.

In the event, however, that the asbestos material sustains damage, it is possible that it could pose a risk to the health of those using the school premises. However, a regime of regular monitoring and maintenance, as part of an asbestos management plan, can allow for any risks arising from such materials to be easily addressed.

Schools are not presently legally required to tell parents about the presence of asbestos in their buildings. Some schools, however, do provide parents with such information anyway, as well as details about how they are managing any asbestos materials.

If you are still concerned about the asbestos situation in your own child’s school, you are advised to contact the school or – where relevant – the local authority.

Contact Oracle Solutions for help with asbestos management

Are you a dutyholder for a commercial or public property – such as a school – with an interest in accredited asbestos management services such as sampling, surveying, or removal? If so, you are welcome to call the Oracle Solutions team today, or to send us an email; when you do, we will be able to send you a fast and free asbestos quote.

Photo of Brendan Coleman

Written by Brendan Coleman

Brendan Coleman, with decades of experience in the asbestos industry, is a dedicated Quality Manager. Certified as a surveyor and analyst, he is adept in operations and quality management with a keen focus on HSE compliance. His expertise is pivotal in maintaining high safety and efficiency standards. Brendan ensures our UKAS accreditation requirements are consistently met and exceeded, upholding stringent standards in asbestos remediation. His commitment to enhancing quality and customer satisfaction makes him an essential advisor in asbestos management.