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Asbestos in Schools

Misleading Statement
by Councils and other authorities


Misleading Statement:

DCSF have issued a questionnaire "that will give a comprehensive picture about how schools and Local Authorities are managing asbestos in their system buildings" (1)

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The Questionnaire - background

In 1987 air sampling in a system built school identified that cumulatively dangerous levels of amosite fibres could be ejected into the classrooms and corridors when doors were slammed or the walls hit. No action was taken to remedy the problem.

The problem was rediscovered in April 2006. In October 2006 guidance was issued, it was amended in March 2007 and further amended in September 2008. It instructed all local authorities, diocese and independent schools in Great Britain to identify their system built schools, check whether they had similar problems and carry out remedial actions.

In January 2009 DCSF issued an online questionnaire to local authorities, local education authorities and diocese asking how many and what type of system built schools they own. They were also asked whether they were following the guidance for system schools and the asbestos regulations. The intention was to establish the standards in asbestos management.

Poor response to Questionnaire by deadline

There are over 450 local authorities in the UK, 150 local education authorities and 73 C of E and RC diocese in addition there are independent schools who own system buildings.

Returns were required by 3rd April 2009. In May 2009 just 30 complete replies had been received. Because of the poor response DCSF has allowed a further two months for replies.

Follow this link for the questionnaire:

For further information on the problem of asbestos in system schools see:
Release of Asbestos Fibres in System built schools (Part 1)
Release of Asbestos Fibres in System built schools (Part 2)

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Flaws: Questionnaire Part 1

Intention

The first part of the questionnaire attempts to establish how many and what type of system built schools there are in the country.

Underlying Flaw

The questionnaire demonstrates the failure of HSE and DCSF to address the problem of asbestos in schools professionally. The reasons are:

Flaw 1: Questionnaire 22 years late

The first part of the questionnaire attempts to establish how many and what type of system built schools there are in the country.

It is indefensible that this basic information was not established by the Government in the 1980’s when the problem of asbestos fibre release was first identified.  If it had been then steps could have been taken to remedy the situation, and no doubt lives could have been saved.

The problem was rediscovered in 2006 and the CLASP Working Group was set up with the mandate to investigate the problem and recommend actions. Inexcusably this basic information was again not collected. The effect was that the CLASP Working Group for a long time mainly concentrated on one specific type of system building – CLASP, when the problem was known to exist in thousands of other similarly constructed school buildings. The result is that precautions have not been taken that should have been and for two and a half years some of their decisions have been based on incorrect suppositions rather than facts.

Summary

It has taken 22 years for the Department for Schools to decide to send out a questionnaire to establish the scale of a problem that is known to release cumulatively dangerous levels of asbestos fibres into the classrooms, corridors and halls of thousands of schools.  This is both unprofessional and dangerous.

Flaw 2: FOI shows motivation behind refusal to analyse problem is fear of panic and cost

Successive Governments have refused to accept that it is their responsibility to know the scale of this major health risk in schools, and instead have abdicated their responsibilities to local authorities and school governors. For instance the Government refused to carry out a national audit of asbestos in schools. FOI documents show the motivation was based on fear of the results if the true situation were known :

The Minister argued that there was no need for a nationwide audit. It was the responsibility of LEAs and school governors to ensure that pupils and staff were not at risk. Commissioning a nationwide audit might provoke panic.”(2)

FOI shows that the underlying reason for not carrying out an audit was that it “could have significant cost implications.” (3) Presumably the cost implications would be the cost of being forced to sort out the problem.

Flaw 3:  Questionnaire lack of responses demonstrates policy of delegation has failed  

In order to comply with HSE guidance on asbestos in System Build schools a basic essential is that those to whom the responsibility is delegated should know the numbers, types and year of construction of all their system built schools, and this information should be readily to hand.

 The schools should have been identified and remedial actions completed by October 2006 in CLASP schools. (4) By October 2007 HSE should have confirmed that all system built schools of every type had been inspected and remedial actions completed, if not they were instructed to take enforcement action. (5)

The fact that in May 2009 only 30 responses have been received when all local authorities, local education authorities, Dioceses, Academies, Independent schools, Non-Maintained Special School and  Voluntary Aided Schools not linked to a Diocese have been approached demonstrates that this basic safety information on which action should already have been taken has not been, and is not, readily available.

The lack of response demonstrates that only a minority of local authorities and schools have any idea of how many or what type of system schools they own. 

There must be doubt over the rigour of  HSE inspections of compliance with the guidance in system built schools, when clearly they were, and still are, unaware of the numbers and types of such schools.

This confirms that the Government policy of relying on LAs and schools to assess the scale of the problem, achieve acceptable standards and self regulate has been, and remains, seriously flawed.

Summary

The lamentable response to this questionnaire underlines the failure of the Department for Children and Schools to adequately address the problem of asbestos in schools, so that neither they nor anyone else has an idea of the scale of the problem. Only now is it becoming apparent to them that their light touch policy of allowing local authorities and schools to set their own standards has in far too many cases allowed bad practice to pass undetected.

The evidence is that the standards in asbestos management vary from the well managed to the fundamentally flawed and dangerous, and the second part of the DCSF questionnaire was an attempt to assess those standards.

Flaws: Questionnaire Part Two

Intention

The second part of the questionnaire is designed to assess standards of asbestos management

Flaw: Questionnaire does not identify the failing authorities

The second half of the questionnaire contains questions that are in effect asking whether the school and local authorities have followed the CLASP Working Group guidance and whether they are complying with regulations and effectively managing their asbestos. As much of this is a requirement by law it would be surprising if the answers admitted that they are not, it is therefore inevitable that this section of the questionnaire will give a misleading picture that all is well, when the evidence in practice is that the reality is very different.

If an authority or a school has not followed the guidance or complied with the law it is likely that they will be the very people who will reply inaccurately to the questionnaire.

If an authority is not aware of its own bad practice, or that of its surveyors, then that is exactly the authority that needs identifying but will, unknowingly, respond inaccurately and not be identified.

A tick box questionnaire is therefore most unlikely to detect those schools who are not managing their asbestos effectively, instead it will give a false picture. The only manner in which a true picture can be obtained is by carrying out on the ground inspections.

Flaw: History: HSE Inspections show that past, similar questionnaires have been dangerously misleading

2004 survey considered not scientific by LGE official conducting it

In 2004 following a series of serious asbestos incidents in schools the HSE established the asbestos in schools campaign with the aim of “dramatically” reducing the asbestos exposure of teachers and children. It intended to improve the asbestos management in schools, with an initial task being one of establishing the levels of compliance with the Regulations and the standards in asbestos management. (6)

A year later, before the first meeting had taken place, the HSE scrapped the campaign so that they could achieve targets for reducing the asbestos exposure of the building maintenance trades. When the schools campaign was scrapped the assessment never took place. 

Instead, two years later in December 2006 a meeting took place to brief the education sector on DfES and HSE asbestos policies in schools. Two days before this meeting the Local Government Employers phoned 66 of the 149 local authorities to ask if they were following the guidance for managing asbestos in System built schools and whether they were obeying the Asbestos Regulations. 33 replied, and not surprisingly most said that they were complying with the guidance and obeying the law. The LGE official who conducted the “snap shot survey” acknowledged that it was not scientific. The HSE Head of Asbestos Policy expressed his pleasure and stated that they found the results of the survey “very encouraging.” (7)

Because of the nature of the questionnaire a false and misleading picture was given rather than alerting the authorities to the failures in the guidance and levels of compliance. This delayed measures being taken to remedy flawed guidance and a lack of compliance.

Similar, non-scientific survey delays action in 2007

The exercise was then repeated between April 2007 and March 2008 when HSE contacted the owners of System buildings asking whether they were managing their asbestos and whether they had followed the guidance. The majority wrote back saying that they were. This again delayed any action being taken to remedy the situation.

Complacent statement by Minister shown as flawed by ITN investigation and HSE enforcement action

The complacent impression that all was well was highlighted in June 2007 when the Schools Minister, Rt Hon Jim Knight MP, wrote to Rt Hon John Denham MP refusing his request for a parliamentary debate on the issue of asbestos in schools.  He referred to the recent correspondence between DfES and the local authorities over System built schools, and stated :

“....we consider that asbestos is being adequately handled by DfES and HSE. DfES continues to liaise with HSE about asbestos in schools. For example HSE recently asked DfES to contact all local authorities about the management and control procedures required in CLASP schools that have asbestos linings to column casings.” (8)

In December 2007 ITN filming took place in a System built school, that had been chosen at random, where the asbestos was found to be in a dangerous condition, the local authority had made no effort to follow the guidance, and their asbestos management was non-existent. (9) HSE issued two improvement notices as a consequence.

The ITN investigation had also established that a number of other local authorities had not followed the guidance, and gave their evidence to HSE. As a result HSE carried out 120 visits to System built schools, out of those 20 improvement notices were served because of a failure to identify the asbestos, failure to manage the asbestos and a failure to implement a reasonable plan of action. That equates to 17% of the schools that had been visited had failed to implement the guidance more than a year after it had been issued. If the percentage of non compliance was constant throughout the country it would mean that almost 2,000 System built schools were failing to manage their asbestos to the extent that they merited improvement notices. (10)

That is a very significant minority.  It is also proof that only on the ground inspections established that there were unacceptable standards of asbestos management in a considerable number of schools, whereas previous questionnaires had failed to determine that, for one must presume that the local authorities had answered the previous questionnaires giving the false impression that all was well.

Timing of present questionnaire appears to be PR spin triggered by BBC investigation

In January 2009 BBC Inside Out broadcast a report that was most critical of the standards of asbestos management in a school. The timing is remarkable as the DCSF questionnaire was issued the day after the BBC report was broadcast, no doubt to diffuse the resultant criticism.

Summary

This latest questionnaire is no different from the proven unscientific and flawed earlier questionnaires. It will, again, give a false impression and delay a proper scientific assessment of how many schools are effectively managing their asbestos, and how many are not.

The DFCS questionnaire has already failed to achieve its first aim of establishing the number and types of system built schools. Despite claims to the contrary it will not, and cannot, achieve its second aim of establishing a comprehensive picture of the standards of asbestos management in system built schools – it is misleading to claim that it will.

The way forward

On 13th May 2009 four key points were place before the Prime Minister by all the Teaching Unions united on this one issue, supported by scientific, medical, and asbestos management experts. One point called for “A comprehensive audit of the extent, type and condition of asbestos in schools, and the standards of management.”

On 3rd June 2009 the Asbestos in Schools campaign will meet the Schools Minister and request that they are initially given access to 100 schools so that the standards of asbestos management can be assessed.  It is then intended that the project will be extended into the comprehensive audit. Such an audit is essential, and long overdue.

Michael Lees
25th May 2009

References

(1) Letter Rt Hon Jim Knight MP Minister of State for Schools and Learners 27 November 2008

(2) DFEE briefing 5 Nov 1993 S. MacMahon .  Follow this link for an analysis of statements made by the HSE using confidential documents that show that cost is the reason the Government has never carried out an audit or risk assessment of asbestos in schools. 

(3) A joint message from the HSE/LGE/DfES Asbestos –Potential for exposure in clasp school buildings. October 2006

(4) HSE Asbestos in CLASP and other system buildings SIM 7/2007/04. Summary, Enforcement guidance para 24

(5) HSE Head of Asbestos Policy briefing to the Local Authorities Forum 23 Nov 2004

(6) Contemporaneous notes Lees. HSE Education sector briefing 13 Dec 2006

(7) Rt Hon Jim Knight MP Minister of State for Schools/ Rt Hon John Denham MP 25 Jun 2007

(8) Follow this link to see the ITN News report

(9) HSE Inspection of asbestos management in clasp and other system buildings 2007/2008