Children and staff at 5,000 state primary schools in England are at risk from deadly asbestos.
And the real figure could be much higher as 47 out of 152 education authorities failed to respond to a Freedom of Information request.
The shocking figure was revealed in an investigation by leading law firm Stephensons Solicitors, which found 5,196 primary schools contained the cancer-causing material.
That means nearly seven out of ten (69%) of primary schools in the 105 local education authority areas who responded to the request contain asbestos, according to official figures.
But a further 3,791 schools could contain asbestos in the 47 areas which failed to provide data. There are 11,217 state primary schools in England.
Some 13 authorities admitted they did not have a record of asbestos in schools they are responsible for. Three responded, but did not provide figures and one refused.
Academies and free schools were not included as they are no longer required to report to their local education authority on asbestos as they are outside of their control.
Kate Sweeney, a lawyer and partner at the law firm, said:“Schools need to be doing more to provide information to parents and staff about the presence of asbestos in their primary school buildings.
“We are calling for all schools and local education authorities to publicly disclose if asbestos is on the premises and the measures being taken to manage it.”
The move is one of the key demands of the Mirror Asbestos Timebomb campaign, which calls for a national audit of all public buildings, including schools.
The audit would measure the presence of the deadly material which was widey used in the post-Second World War school building boom.
Ms Sweeney said although no figures are available on the number of children of who have died as a result of exposure to asbestos in the classroom, it remains a potential threat.
She added:“Many people still think that asbestos is a problem of the past and that asbestos-related
illnesses only occur in trades’ people or people who have worked in the construction industry.
“This is simply not the case. The potentially deadly material has been used in all types of buildings
and is still present in many primary schools due to aging school buildings. Parents and teachers have a right to know if asbestos is present and what measures are being taken to manage exposure.”
According to the National Education Union at least 319 teachers have died from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos,m since 1980, and 205 of these deaths have occurred since 2001.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), which represents 460,000 teachers, said:“No-one should have to suffer an early death because the building they work in contains asbestos. Education staff are at risk, but children are even more vulnerable.
“It is staggering that so little progress has been made on removing asbestos from schools, despite the many related deaths and the constant calls from teacher unions. The situation is no better in academies than in local authority schools.
“This is about the failure of Government to commit to a long-term strategy for the phased removal of asbestos from all our schools.”
The law firm launched its investigation after a call from the Department of Education last year for all schools
to report how much asbestos is in their buildings.
Nearly a quarter (23%) of schools failed to respond by the February 2019 deadline and the government’s Public Accounts Committee called for the department to “name and shame” those schools which failed to respond.
Asbestos was banned in 1999 but had been widely used during construction in school buildings during the 1940s-1970s and is now often in a deteriorating state.
Problem buildings with damaged roofs, rotten windows and broken ceiling tiles can result in
asbestos fibres being released into the air.
If inhaled, the fibres can cause a range of life-threatening illnesses including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.
Liz Darlison, of Mesothelioma UK, the national charity for the asbestos-related cancer, said:”Sadly, the UK has the highest incidence of mesothelioma in the world which directly correlates to the amount of asbestos we imported. “There is no safe level of exposure and sadly, we should be doing much more to protect people, particularly children.
“The time from exposure, to developing the disease, can take several decades, which is why the level
of concern about low level exposure is perhaps not fully appreciated. As a nation, we must take
responsibility and rid our buildings of this cancer-causing substance, for the sake of our children,
their children and every generation in the future.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said:“The safety of pupils and staff is our highest priority. We have asked schools to provide information through the Asbestos Management Assurance Process and this data will help the department develop a greater understanding of the management of asbestos in schools.
“Since 2015, we have already allocated more than £7.4 billion to those responsible for school buildings to maintain and improve the school estate, including removing asbestos when it is the safest course of action.”
Asbestos campaigner Lucie Stephens vowed to rid schools of the deadly material after her mum – a teacher for 30 years – died of mesothelioma.
Sue Stephens was diagnosed with the aggressive cancer in 2014, six years after she retired from teaching and died, aged 68, in 2016.
Now her daughter Lucie, of Crediton, Devon, is calling for the removal of asbestos from schools after promising her dying mother she wanted to prevent more people losing loved ones “unnecessarily.”
She said her mother had worked as a primary schoolteacher in Buckinghamshire for 30 years before retiring to Devon in 2008.
Lucie said:”Mum was incredibly angry when she got her diagnosis as she was working in a school with asbestos. She worked in schools across Buckinghamshire, in primary schools with five-year-olds in reception.
“It can take years to show itself, but unfortunately it’s a cancer that has no cure.”
“A Freedom of Information request shows that asbestos was present in Mum’s classroom but she was never told about it. What tormented Mum is that she could have protected her children; she had all the little ones in reception.
“We promised Mum we would try to do something to prevent more people suffering as she did. We have a petition to encourage the government to remove asbestos from schools, and we want all schools to produce an annual report for parents and teachers. “The US already has this, and once the asbestos is gone, schools will become safer places for staff and children.”
Her petition, calling for the phased removal of asbestos from all schools to be completed by 2028, has attracted more than 121,000 signatures.
She is also fund-raising to set up a website, which will alert parents and teachers to presence of asbestos in their schools.