Dilapidated toilets with broken locks and peeling lino aren’t just unpleasant – they impact on pupils’ health, learning and respect for their school, researchers tell Gemma Corby. The good news is that the pandemic is encouraging everyone to clean up their act
I went to secondary school in the 1990s and every time I passed the boys’ toilets, I thanked God I was a girl. It was the smell, mainly: a horrific, acrid smell of rot that invaded your nostrils with the unwelcome abruptness of a work email alert after 9pm.
In contrast, the girls’ toilets smelled delightful: a heady mix of Impulse body spray and cigarettes. Exquisite.
Of course, when it came down to it, the loos were equally bad in practical terms. In both, you could entertain yourself by playing Bog Bingo – identifying which conventional features of a water closet were absent. You’d get a full house if you stumbled into a cubicle with no lock, no toilet seat, no chain and the contents of the last visitor’s bowels still present in the bowl.
And the decor, well: if a school toilet does not have peeling lino, mouldy sinks, a strange half-light from frosted windows and unidentified fluid all over the floor, is it even a school toilet?
“Oh, but it’s all changed since you were a student,” you cry. Come now, let’s be honest: I’ve taught in many a school since 2004 and in every single one the students still complain about the loos. Student councils expose toilets that are locked, fail to provide privacy, are hideously unclean, are poorly maintained, are centres for bullying and…the list goes on.
This needs to change. Not just because it is inhuman, but also because your school toilets have a big impact on how pupils view school, how comfortable they are in school and, thus, how much they are likely to learn.
Let’s start with the medical argument: a clean, secure and accessible toilet is essential if pupils are to live a healthy lifestyle.
Alina Lynden, communications manager and helpline adviser at Eric, the children’s bowel and bladder charity, stresses that access to a clean, appropriately stocked toilet, whenever the need arises, is a fundamental human right. “Open access to high-quality toilet facilities is crucial to pupils’ health and wellbeing,” she says.
If children and adolescents try to “hold” rather than use a toilet, the medical impact can be substantial, from discomfort at one end of the spectrum to serious infections and medical complications at the other. Clearly, these medical issues will have a negative impact on learning, too.
Nice to WC you
Toilets also make a big impression in terms of the extent to which pupils think the school cares about them, and thus affect the pupil-school relationship, says Sarah Burton, an associate lecturer and doctoral student from the Open University, who wrote the paper Toilets unblocked: a literature review of school toilets.
“Schools are communities and the more those in them feel like they have an equal stake, or that the place is theirs, the more buildings and spaces are respected and cared for,” she says. “Don’t think of toilets as being separate from everything else you do in school. How they are used or misused tells you something about how school is viewed and about the children and young people’s lives.”
The message here is that if the pupils don’t think you care about their wellbeing, or them in general, then they will begin to care less about you and your school in return.
And that’s not all: the state of your loos impacts on every aspect of education, says Lynden. “Good toilets have a positive influence on pupils’ willingness to and ability to learn, their behaviour, morale and attendance levels,” she explains.
So, what do schools need to prioritise?
Cleanliness and the right to use the toilet are the crux of the issue here. Your school could have the shiniest, spiffiest toilets but if young people are not permitted to use them when they need to, then they are effectively redundant. And if they are allowed to use them but the bogs resemble a literal bog, your permissiveness is wasted.
So, for starters, a deep clean, fixing anything broken and a lick of paint are paramount. Think the pupils will just trash it in seconds? Well, you wouldn’t stand for it anywhere else in the school, so why the toilets?
“We made the toilets a key point in tutor time, and across year groups we agreed codes of conduct and minimum expectations for use of the toilets,” says Luke Marsden, a secondary teacher in the South of England. “Yes, pupils use toilets badly on occasions but we explained that we were investing in the facilities and we put it on them: how do we ensure they stay somewhere you are happy to go? The response was really positive. They set the rules and they tend to self-police it – and we have had very few problems since.”
When you gotta go…
Once you have a place that pupils are happy to visit, then you need to look at accessibility.
At present, there is nothing in law that forbids adults from denying children the right to use the toilet. However, this is something that Eric, alongside Bladder and Bowel UK, wants to see changed.
“In an ideal world, all young people would be able to use the toilet when they needed to, regardless of whether they have a medical condition or not,” says Lynden. “Some issues are temporary – for example, someone might have a particularly heavy period one month. People’s bladders and bowels do not fit a set pattern – especially if someone is feeling anxious.”
Schools may reply that such an open-door policy would be abused, but Marsden says that the number of pupils who will actually abuse this system is very small and that as long as teacher-pupil relationships are strong – and a teacher has an eye on the number of times a particular pupil leaves and how long each pupil is gone – the issues can be minimal.
Finally, what sort of toilets should they be? Some schools have opted for open-plan toilets or ones with glass walls (not the cubicles, but the toilet space in general), so that shared wash facilities are in plain sight. This may potentially reduce antisocial behaviour and skipping lessons, but what impact does it have on those young people who require privacy?
Dr Jen Slater and Dr Charlotte Jones have researched toilet accessibility in the context of disability and gender identity, and they suggest that schools move away from a one-size-fits-all approach.
“We strongly recommend the provision of at least some gender-neutral toilets,” they say. “Preferably single cubicles with access to private washing facilities. Our research shows that facilities such as this will not just be useful for trans and gender-nonconforming pupils and teachers but also others who need more space or privacy.”
In their research report Around the Toilet, Slater and Jones recommend that communal toilets are invested in, not just in schools but also in the wider community. They have also come up with a list of low-cost improvements, including the provision of signs showing what facilities are inside the toilet, rather than who is able to use it; replacing soap and toilet roll when required; and never using accessible toilets as storage rooms.
They also say that replacing essential hygiene products should not be impossible. And on this, Burton feels the pandemic may have a positive lasting legacy.
“There is now an equality in our need for good hygiene…While a school may not be able to afford a makeover, every school should be able to afford clean, functioning toilets,” she says.
So, overall, the message is just to value toilets more, to recognise that they are essential for learning and that they are a window into your school: if the bogs are a mess, then it’s likely your pupils think the school is, too.
Gemma Corby is a teacher and freelance writer
This article originally appeared in the 4 December 2020 issue under the headline “All cisterns go in the bid to flush out rotten toilets”