Most people would be aware of a shortfall in school funding, but few could have anticipated how bad the issue was, or what the consequences could be. A leaked government report indicates that thousands of school buildings around the country are in a dangerously bad state of repair – and that fixing them could cost upwards of £13 billion.

With asbestos still in around 75% of schools, it’s no surprise that the deadly substance is a major factor in both the need for and difficulty of repairs. This latest report highlights the urgency of the issue, and the very real threat it poses to the wellbeing of teachers and students. Failing to act now will cost more money in the long run, and could even cost lives.

Fighting for funding

Leaked to the Observer newspaper, internal government documents and emails appear to show an increasingly urgent dialogue between the Department for Education (DfE) and the Treasury. Education officials have petitioned the Treasury for the £13 billion raised from higher education reforms to be funnelled directly into building repairs. To make use of this, they also suggest that the number of permitted rebuilds per year should be raised from 50 to 300, a figure which would represent the biggest school regeneration project in decades.

The requests for funding are backed up by reports that buildings on some sites are a “risk to life”. The correspondence also states that persistent repairs to buildings are costly and energy-inefficient, and that the demand for rebuilds is three times greater than supply. The report represents a potential shift from recent policies on school infrastructure funding: a recent House of Common briefing showed that capital spending on schools had dropped by 29% after inflation between 2009-10 and 2021-22.

While there are no current statistics for the state of the modern school estate, evidence from 2019 painted an already grim picture. 17% of surveyed schools at that time had one or more structural elements that required immediate action, while over 6% had ‘grade D’ elements, defined as being “life expired and/or [at] serious risk of imminent failure”. As we’ve written about before, it’s also widely known that around 75% of UK schools still contain asbestos, though it’s not clear what condition that asbestos is in.

An ongoing issue

The extent of the asbestos problem in UK schools is well-established. With many schools dating back to the post-War period of reconstruction, asbestos was widely used as a building material. By the time that the full asbestos ban came into effect, much of the most dangerous asbestos had been removed, and the policy was to keep the rest in place. As long as asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) such as particleboard and linoleum weren’t damaged, and were monitored properly, the risks could be contained.

That ban was over 20 years ago, and there has been little investment in school infrastructure since. There has also been little change in how asbestos is dealt with, despite the fact that most ACMs are now at least 30 or 40 years old. And while the advice to observe and maintain asbestos is at best idealistic, it is also ineffective. Statistics for the number of penalties issued by the HSE demonstrate that there is relatively little interest in checking whether asbestos is being catalogued and maintained properly, or punishing people who break the rules.

 

There have been enough cases in previous years to suggest that not all schools keep a close enough eye on asbestos on their properties, and that neither students or teachers are aware of where ACMs are located. This can lead to dangerous exposure to asbestos even under normal circumstances, such as when accessing cupboards or ceiling spaces, or through accidental damage to wall panels. When schools are having to place buckets to catch rain falling from holes in the roof, the issue of asbestos becomes even more urgent.

Taking urgent action

Removing asbestos from schools clearly isn’t an easy or cheap process, or else it would have been done already. Much of the reason behind the HSE’s current guidelines is that it is both difficult and expensive, making it a tough proposition for any public authority. Removing it can be dangerous if not done properly, as has been the case in a few cases, where asbestos exposure has occurred at schools. There may also be some reticence to further disturb students and shut down schools after the lengthy disruption caused by the pandemic.

However, maintaining asbestos contained within crumbling buildings is equally difficult, and maintenance work can unwittingly disturb it. Faced with both of these factors, HSE guidelines do not seem fit for purpose. Schools should not be presented with a situation where they either imperil students by keeping asbestos in place or using dodgy contractors; or one where they have to sacrifice the quality of teaching to shut down the school. There should be an onus on the government to ensure that both the quality of the learning experience and safety of students and teachers are sacrosanct.

Any level of asbestos exposure is dangerous, but this is especially true for children. The long latency period of asbestos-related diseases means that many adults who are exposed won’t notice the effects until they are around or beyond retirement age. For children, this latency is obviously much more consequential, and threatens to massively reduce their lifespan. Any asbestos death is a tragedy, but exposing children through inaction is inexcusable – and much more so when it occurs as a result of decades of mismanagement and funding shortfalls.

With the leaked report only the latest bit of evidence that UK schools are in dire need of renovation, questions need to be asked about the asbestos in schools, and the immediate danger this poses to life. Given recent calls by the Work and Pensions Committee to accelerate the total removal of asbestos from public buildings, there should not be any asbestos in schools at all, let alone in schools suffering from other severe damage. The hope is that this talk about school funding isn’t just talk, and that this news puts the necessary pressure on the Treasury to do something about it.