Skip to main content

Asbestos in schools: How worried should parents be and what else you need to know about the presence of the hazardous material

Recent press has highlighted the ongoing risks of asbestos, particularly in our schools.

As school buildings age and repair budgets are stretched, they’re more likely to fall into disrepair. It’s at this point asbestos becomes more dangerous.

The issues are understandably concerning for parents, but how worried should you be, and what, if anything, can you do about it?

Where is asbestos used?

Asbestos was banned as a building material in 1999 in the UK. Buildings constructed after 2000 won’t contain asbestos, but there’s a risk that a building constructed earlier may contain the hazardous substance.

Asbestos use was widespread in the building industry in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when many of our current schools were built. It was typically used as fire protection around the school’s steel framework, as insulation in the panels underneath windows and in heating systems, including in warm air heating cupboards, in fume cupboards and other laboratory equipment (Bunsen burner mats for example) and in ceiling tiles, as well as many other places.

If it’s known that there’s asbestos in my child’s school, why hasn’t it been removed? 

Although the asbestos ban prevented asbestos materials being used in construction going forwards, it didn’t enforce the removal of asbestos materials already in use. Removing asbestos is a huge, hazardous, and expensive challenge, and in most cases, managing it in place has been thought to be an effective safeguard.

However, as has been highlighted all too clearly over recent weeks, as buildings start to fall into disrepair and the risk of exposure becomes more likely, there’s mounting pressure on the Government to commit to removing asbestos from all public buildings.

School leaders don’t have to inform parents that they have asbestos on their premises. Their duty is to manage the asbestos in their building.

If there’s asbestos in my child’s school, what can I do about it? 

If you know that your child’s school contains asbestos, you will rightly want to know if there’s anything practical you can do to make sure they’re as safe as possible during their time there.

If there’s asbestos in your child’s school, there should be an asbestos management plan. You can ask to see this plan at any time, to familiarise yourself with the location of asbestos in the building and to reassure yourself that it’s being managed properly.

If you have any concerns about the management of asbestos, you can raise them with the person responsible for health and safety on the premises.

If you believe that asbestos is being disturbed in your child’s school you can contact the Health and Safety Executive for further advice on 0300 003 1647 or via its website.

Of course, it's not only children who are affected by asbestos on school premises. There are also members of the teaching and support staff, caretakers, kitchen staff and tradespeople who visit the site. Information about the location and condition of asbestos should be given to anyone who might disturb it and staff who are likely to disturb asbestos should be suitably trained.

Who’s responsible for managing asbestos at my child’s school? 

The responsible person in a school depends on the type of school.

For community schools, community special schools, voluntary-controlled schools, maintained nursery schools and pupil referral units, it’s the local authority.

For academies and free schools, it will be the academy trust; and for voluntary-aided and foundation schools, it will be the school governors.

For independent schools, it may be the proprietor, governors, or trustees.

In situations where budgets for building management are delegated to schools by the local authority, the duty to manage asbestos will be shared between the school and the local authority.

What’s the risk from asbestos?

As a parent, you naturally want to know how much of a risk your children are facing from asbestos in their school. If asbestos isn’t disturbed, the risk is minimal, but it's never zero. Its presence alone shouldn't cause concern, provided it’s managed properly. 

Problems arise as buildings age and asbestos starts to deteriorate. With repair budgets stretched, it’s becoming more of an issue.

If asbestos is disturbed it releases fibres into the air, which can then be inhaled by people using the space. Inhaling asbestos fibres leads to an increased risk of developing an asbestos-related condition later in life. Children have a much longer lifespan over which problems can develop, and their lungs are still growing and developing, so they’re at particular risk.  

I’m worried that my child’s been exposed to asbestos during building work at school / there’s been a specific incident of damage to their classroom or a room they use. What can I do? 

If you believe your child has been exposed to asbestos, you should make a record of that exposure. You can ask their GP to record the date and details of possible exposure to asbestos in their records. You should also keep a copy of any letters/documents relating to their exposure.

Is there anything else I can do?

Our charity partner, Mesothelioma UK, is calling time on asbestos with its Don’t Let The Dust Settle campaign. It's calling for a central register of asbestos, including where it is and what condition it’s in.

The charity is also calling for a timeframe to be set for the safe removal of asbestos from public buildings, prioritising high risk settings such as schools and hospitals.

Its campaign was recently discussed in Parliament, and the Government rejected a petition from Mesothelioma UK, in which over 10,000 people called for the removal of asbestos over the next 40 years and an asbestos register. 

In its response, the Government said clear evidence was needed that the two recommendations would improve health outcomes.

Liz Darlison, chief executive of Mesothelioma UK, said: “Responses to the petition highlight the breadth of support for government intervention. Asbestos continues to kill thousands of people in the UK each year. There are measures that can be taken to address this and the public have spoken.” 

Mesothelioma UK continues to promote its campaign.

You may also wish to contact your local Asbestos Victim Support Group for further advice. It’s very likely they will have come across similar issues before. You can find details of your local support group at

Campaigning to highlight the issues connected to asbestos

At Irwin Mitchell we’ve represented people affected by asbestos-related disease for decades. 

We see the devastation it causes families both during illness, and the grief of a loved one passing away too soon. We’ve campaigned for years to highlight the number of public buildings that still contain asbestos. 

Earlier this year we published the findings of our research into the true picture of asbestos in public buildings. Following requests to the 20 largest local authorities in the UK by population, it was revealed that 4,533 public buildings across the 20 councils still contained asbestos, averaging around 225 buildings per local authority.  

Schools were the largest category of buildings affected, making up almost a quarter of the total number. 

We calculated that if the data provided was repeated across the 387 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales, around 87,000 public buildings would contain asbestos. 

You can find out more about the research in our special report

Meanwhile if you, or someone close to you, has been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, our team are on hand to offer help and advice. More information can be found at our dedicated asbestos-related disease section.