A few weeks ago, news broke that another school had introduced a policy to lock toilets during lesson time and make school staff accompany students to the toilets. Worryingly, it is these policies that remind us of the negative attitudes towards school toilets which can be the catalyst for the life-long health and hygiene behaviour of students.
In fact, research has found that the equivalent of more than half a million secondary school students have not drunk at school and almost one in 10 have refrained from eating, so that they can avoid using the toilet.
Of the pupils who avoid using school toilets, 52 per cent said this is because the toilets were dirty, while 19 per cent described them as unsafe, 17 per cent as faulty and 12 per cent said they lacked toilet roll or hand wash.
Our schools are facing more challenges than ever, with money being one of the main problems, in both school budgets and the poverty crisis that our students are living through. Many schools report children living in poverty and there have been reported cases of schools having to bring in food for pupils and buy washing machines to wash students’ clothes.
This, combined with overstretched school budgets and a lack of availability of school nurses to help teaching staff with addressing health and hygiene issues, means that teachers are finding themselves firefighting with an ever-growing list of responsibilities, one of which includes teaching correct hygiene behaviour.
When we reflect on our own school experiences, many people recall memories of poorly maintained, often unclean toilet facilities, which were occasionally unsafe and often out of bounds during lesson time. It is disappointing, therefore, to find that, in this day and age, when our schools are doing a brilliant job in teaching the next generation, they are still struggling to provide and maintain adequate toilet facilities for students. Research last year from Essity’s School Hygiene Essentials Initiative told us that one in four primary school children rated toilets in their school as poor or very poor. Clearly something needs to change.
Putting health and education at risk
The need for change is made all the more acute when we consider the lengths some pupils are going to in order to avoid using school toilets. Half of key stage 1 teachers have seen instances of children soiling or wetting themselves rather than using the toilet, and the recent research highlighted how a significant proportion of pupils were avoiding drinking and eating, putting both their health and education at risk.
The research also found that over a third of students who avoided eating or drinking had suffered from headaches and 31 per cent had struggled to concentrate in class, as a result. Children who soil themselves in class are also at risk of being bullied.
So, as schools continue to firefight the issues they face, what can they realistically do to try and improve levels of hygiene in their school toilets? I believe it starts with better education, for both teachers and for students. For example, including reference to the importance of nutrition, hydration, correct hygiene behaviour and using the toilet regularly, within the curriculum. As well as school staff really understanding and empathising with the importance of letting students go when they need to, they need to recognise that not all health problems are visible and that some students may have requirements where they need to go to the toilet more often. Rather than restricting pupils and putting further pressure on them, we welcome changes to school policies that encourage flexibility that allows students to go when they need to go.
Beyond behaviour, we remind schools to look out for charitable grants from local companies, which can be used to improve toilet facilities or to buy toilet paper and sanitary products. Sadly, budget constraints don’t seem to be going away, but schools should take advantage of the grants and donations available to them. At School and Public Health Nurses' Association (SAPHNA), we have also heard of instances of schools calling upon their student parents/local community for help, with local trade companies offering a hand to renovate toilet facilities or/and getting students involved with updating and looking after their toilets as part of a design and technology project.
Cleaning up school toilets
Access to education resources to help educate pupils on correct toilet hygiene is also key and the School Hygiene Essentials Initiative, which is made up of a collection of experts including SAPHNA, the National Association of Primary Education and ERIC, the children’s bowel and bladder charity, and led by Essity, a health and hygiene company, is committed to helping to provide these. Launched last year, the initiative aims to address toilet hygiene issues across primary and secondary schools through better education and support in improving school toilets, and information and resources can be found here.
Additionally, although they are also suffering significant service cuts, calling on school nurses to support health education and working with them on issues such as toilet training, daytime wetting/soiling and chronic disease such as Crohns, will offer a much more co-ordinated approach and help to dilute much stigma and worry for many students experiencing these issues
By taking action, and encouraging others to do the same, we can help schools to provide and maintain clean and well-equipped loos which children are happy to use, putting an end to a problem that has existed for far too long.
Sharon White is the CEO of the School and Public Health Nurses Association