By John McClean, AiS Co-ordinator and JUAC Chair
I cannot be the only long-term campaigner on mesothelioma and asbestos-related diseases to sometimes feel that not only is progress slow in gains for families and victims, but that history can appear to be on a loop. It seems that you need to educate some participants on the core issues surrounding asbestos exposure and its consequences yet again.
Obviously, governments change and with that so does the approach to how to deal with asbestos in schools. We are used to ministerial change but when whole departments change personnel and your initial meeting with them requires them to trawl your collective experience to get up to speed with their brief, then you wonder if progress can ever be made properly.
However, with this frustration also comes some optimism - occasionally! My predecessor in the AiS campaign, Michael Lees, who got involved in initiating the campaign when his wife, Gina, a teacher, died of mesothelioma, wrote movingly last year in the 100th edition of the British Asbestos Newsletter on the 30 years of neglect in dealing with asbestos in our schools.
While Michael has deservedly retired from the campaign, another campaigner, Lucie Stephens, who lost her mother, Sue, another teacher, last year, has started a petition to raise awareness of the situation in UK schools, and get it taken more seriously.
The petition can be found at - https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/protect-our-children-and-teachers-from-asbestos-exposure-in-schools. Thousands have signed this already but it is not too late to add your name to the list.
In addition, Lucie has initiated Freedom of Information requests to all the local authorities in England and Wales on where asbestos is present and how it is being managed, though it is fair to say that the results are, so far, incomplete. This has spurred on both the education trade unions and the education support staff trade unions to follow requests to academies and free schools. This is vitally important as we still don’t know the true extent of the amount of asbestos in schools or the condition it is in.
By dealing with the Department for Education (DfE) at a national level we are also attempting to get a coherent short and long-term strategy to deal with the problem. To do this in such a way that awareness among school leaders, staff and parents is raised without being accused of scaremongering can be a difficult balancing act.
There is an acknowledgement that the problem is ‘potentially’ serious and that new approaches to training, information and air measurement need to be examined. As always though, we live in a political world where funding issues, not least for overall education, pupil performance and establishing new schools, all impact on the issue we are most concerned with.
This is a long-term campaign - things do not change at great speed but change does occur, through both individual and collective campaigning. Yes, sometimes it can be frustrating but we have little choice but to continue.