"The first day of school was a stressful, surreal blur. I got in trouble for the most random things...
'Where are you going?'
'Oh, I have to go the bathroom.'
'You need a lavatory pass.'
'OK. Can I have a lavatory pass?'
'Ha ha, nice try, have a seat.'"
The above is from the excellent film Mean Girls, where a fresh-faced Lindsay Lohan plays a high school student who has just moved to the States from (that well-known “country”) Africa.
Quick read: 'Never forget the importance of school toilets'
Quick listen: Understanding the psychology of bad behaviour
Want to know more? Behaviour matters but relationships matter more
Dodgy geography aside, this is a common scenario. Toilet access can be a difficult balance to strike, as some students will use it as an excuse to get up to no good; yet there is a serious question about the potential damage inflicted upon children’s physical and mental health as a consequence of depriving them of this most basic human right.
More than 900,000 people under the age of 18 in the UK experience continence issues – that’s one in 12.
Holding in urine is not only uncomfortable but can expose an individual to harmful levels of bacteria, which can lead to a urinary tract infection or bladder damage. Not responding to the urge to have a bowel movement can also cause long-term damage to the colon.
And putting the health implications to one side, have you ever tried concentrating on anything when bursting for the loo? It’s nearly impossible.
How many times has Maslow’s hierarchy of needs been rolled out in CPD sessions? All teachers know that learning is going to be limited if an individual’s physiological needs are not being met.
Young people with continence issues are more likely to experience anxiety, affecting not only their wellbeing but also their attendance.
An obvious solution may be to offer toilet passes to those with a medical condition, but it is not the panacea it may appear to be. Firstly, not all young people feel comfortable talking about their continence issues, so not all who need a pass would have access to one.
Secondly, it can be embarrassing to have a toilet pass, and therefore they may not use one, even if they have it.
But it’s not only bladder and bowel issues that may necessitate a trip to the bathroom. Blanket toilet bans discriminate against young women in particular. When women first start their periods, their cycles are often erratic, and their flow can be heavy. This can be tricky for students to deal with, especially if they start at a very young age.
On top of this, medical conditions such as endometriosis and fibroids can cause extremely painful and heavy periods, so young women need to feel reassured that they can access a toilet when they need to.
As for the worry that students will use time in the toilet to skip lessons, perhaps teachers need to question why a student might want to. Could it be that they find the work too hard or the environment too stressful?
As for vandalising the toilets, this can happen at any time, surely? And why should the actions of a minority impact all students?
Teachers can make a discreet note of who leaves their lesson and at what time. Most schools have decent CCTV cameras installed in their corridors; surely any vandals could be easily identified and reprimanded?
The argument that school is training for the “real world” is also limited. How often are you, as an adult, in a situation where you cannot go to the loo?
And before you shout "Teachers can’t go when they want!", I would argue that I have known teachers to ask another adult to step in and keep an eye on their class when they have been in a desperate situation.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t encourage young people to plan their time wisely and to think ahead, but an outright ban seems counterintuitive.
Learning is not going to be maximised if all a young person can think about is not wetting themselves or worrying if they are going to leave a bloodied patch on the seat when they stand up at the end of the lesson.
What you can do
Schools should consider:
Educating staff around continence issues: these videos by Eric could be shown in a staff meeting or Inset.
Putting in place a clear and discreet procedure for pupils to disclose any continence problems.
Having a transparent policy regarding medical/toilet passes. Ensure that all teaching staff, including supply teachers, are aware.
Issuing a confidential list of any young people with continence issues to teachers and TAs.
Encouraging young people with bladder or bowel problems to speak to a trusted member of staff and/or a trusted friend at school.
Arranging for young people to catch up with any work they may have missed.
Ensuring that suitable examination access arrangements are made, such as rest breaks, so that the young person can use the bathroom without worrying that they will lose precious minutes.
Making sure that those with continence issues can access a clean and secure toilet. Some young people are given access to the disabled toilets. There must also be a bin for the disposal of continence pads and wipes. Often boys’ toilets will not have a bin, which can be potentially embarrassing for them.
Not making a child wait to use the toilet if they have a medical condition – let them go straightaway.
Encouraging young people to drink water throughout the day.
When I was at school, back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was unheard of for young people to be allowed to drink in class, even during a heatwave. Now, it is normal for water bottles to be on desks next to pencil cases.
We all know the benefits of keeping hydrated; similarly, schools need to listen to the research concerning toilet access.
When I was an NQT, my head of department told me I was not permitted to let anyone go to the toilet, unless “their eyes are bulging and the veins in their head are popping”.
To my shame I followed this advice and one child soiled themselves in one of my lessons. It must have been humiliating for them.
From that point on, I have always let young people go to the toilet, regardless of whether they have a pass or bulging eyes, and my conscience feels a lot better for it.
Gemma Corby is a former special educational needs and disability coordinator (Sendco) and freelance writer