While the most obvious reactions to the coalition government’s voracious approach to cutting public spending, as much and as quickly as possible, are the significant risk of further economic downturn and the obvious impact on public and private sector employment. The most recent economic data show that growth is now over 1 per cent. This is not massive by any stretch of the imagination, but it is significant and is an indicator that the previous government’s strategy was beginning to have a positive impact. Radically reversing public spending does mean placing a risk on that growth continuing in the immediate term.
On the second point, estimates of job losses vary, from anything up to 50,000 in the north east alone. The only consensus is that there will be significant job losses and that the reality is that private sector growth would have to exceed any previous performance by an astounding multiple in order to compensate for these job losses. It won’t and overall economic performance is almost certain to decline in the next few years.
There are, however, also hidden consequences of the cuts agenda. By stopping the Building Schools for the Future programme 99 schools in the north east and Cumbria have had their building or refurbishment plans halted immediately. There has been much coverage of this in the media with disappointed Teachers and parents bemoaning the requirement for them to carry on the situation of trying to inspire children to good educational achievement in tatty, run down accommodation that is a long way from being fit for purpose. If saving money was the only issue here then it does question the current government’s approach to academies and ‘free schools’, which in affect take money out of the education system, leaving those schools not pursuing this path even more starved of resources.
A further, dramatic concern is the health risks from the unrefurbished schools. Almost all the schools concerned were built before 1975, when the use of asbestos was at its height. It is estimated that 86 per cent of these schools contain asbestos. As the school gets older and falls more into disrepair, the likelihood of asbestos exposure grows.
In the last 30 years the number of school staff diagnosed with mesothelioma, a fatal disease caused only by asbestos exposure, has trebled; clear evidence that this is a growing epidemic. There is also clear and worrying evidence to show that children in schools containing asbestos are five times as likely as teachers to contract asbestos related illnesses, due to the extra period of latency from being exposed to asbestos earlier in life.
Refurbishing or rebuilding all of the pre-1975 school buildings isn’t just about providing a better educational environment. It is also about making sure our children can learn in a school that doesn’t put their lives at risk. The government must find a way to rid all of our schools of all asbestos now.
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