Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

WARNING: Tough measures on fire safety and asbestos

Chemical suit

The view of experts that there are hundreds of high-rise flats in Britain with inadequate fire protection may seem to have little to do with education.

However, it is no coincidence that most of those flats were built in the 1970s, and that many, if not most, schools and colleges have buildings dating to that era.

All potential fire risks should have been identified and be part of the local authority's capital strategy plan. LAs in England should have the results of a comprehensive survey of every school site undertaken in the late 1990s (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland did not do this).

Head and principals, as those personally answerable for any loss of life or injury in case of fire, ought to be ensuring that any structural fire risk has been identified and steps taken to eliminate it.

Similarly, the denunciation of some British hotels as potential death traps, with poorly maintained smoke alarms, blocked fire exits and stairways and inadequate staff training, may strike a warning note to schools and colleges.

Inevitably there is a caretaker who insists on propping fire doors open with the extinguishers, a waste truck parked outside the design block every night, paper stored under the staircase and a door that is always locked to keep out students.

It may be worth thinking about staff training. 'Wise before the event' may save heads and principals from a criminal record.

The case of a woman who was awarded 240,000 for asbestos-related cancer (mesothelioma) must send shivers down many spines as the injury was traced to the school she attended from 1972. The school had asbestos roofing in the corridors and panels in toilets.

Evidence was heard that the roof tiles were taken down and stacked in corridors when electrical work was done, that bullies pushed other pupils' clothes up under the tiles and that the toilet panels were vandalised.

While the damage has been done for those who are unknowingly incubating this appalling disease, heads and principals need to have a copy of a proper asbestos survey and to act on it if they are to avoid liability for themselves or their employers, and, more importantly, to protect their colleagues and students.

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