Most teachers go beyond the call of duty - but escorting pupils to the loo, or changing their soiled underwear, is perhaps a step too far. So there has been some sympathy for Liverpool headteacher Patricia Deus, who recently warned parents that she would turn away children who were not toilet-trained.
"Helping pupils go to the toilet is not a good use of teachers' time," says Angela Wells, head of the ATL teaching union's early-years team. Her advice to members is not to undertake this kind of activity unless it is an agreed part of their job description. "It is not just a point of principle," she says. "There are important issues surrounding hygiene and the risk of potential allegations."
But not everyone sees it that way. June Rogers, a director at continence charity PromoCon, believes schools have a moral duty to help children with toileting problems. "We have had cases where a child has been left in soiled pants for an hour or more because the school has refused to help them change. That is not fair on the child and it leads to bullying and name-calling."
She says there is no legal reason why teachers can't help children, although she suggests seeking parental consent.
One thing is clear - schools need to have a strategy in place. "Reports from our members suggest it is increasingly common for children not to be toilet-trained," says Ms Wells. "It is obviously more of an issue at foundation stage, but it can also be a problem with older children." Ms Rogers agrees that children are being potty-trained at a later age and says busy lifestyles are to blame, along with a lack of know-how and support. "Parents sometimes think, 'The school will sort it out,'" she admits.
So how can schools respond? A spokesperson for Liverpool City Council says Ms Deus's letter to parents had the desired effect and that the school no longer has problems. But banning pupils - or even threatening to ban them - is certainly not advisable. Lazy parenting is only one reason why a child might not be potty-trained and if you turn away a pupil whose continence problems are linked to a medical condition, you are in clear breach of the disability section of the Equality Act.
Some experts argue that disability laws cover all cases of incontinence - not just those linked to medical conditions. Ms Rogers sees this as a "grey area", but many local authorities are unequivocal. In Hertfordshire, for example, schools are advised that having an admissions policy that requires a "standard of continence" is both "unacceptable" and "unlawful".
Perhaps the best approach is to work with parents to pre-empt problems. "We'd advise schools to be proactive," says Jenny Perez, director of child continence charity ERIC. "Headteachers should write to parents six months before a child is due to start school, explaining why it is important that pupils are toilet-trained. That way, any problems can be flagged up and a training programme agreed. If neither the school nor the parents accept responsibility, then it is the child who will suffer," she says.
Know the law
- There are many reasons why children may be incontinent - including a number of medical conditions.
- It may be unlawful to refuse children admission on grounds of incontinence.
- Work closely with parents to put together a management plan.
- Allow pupils access to the toilets at any time. Ensure toilets are safe, pleasant and warm.
- Be aware at all times of the child's dignity and self-esteem.
- Ensure proper training for teachers working with children who have toileting problems.
Based on Lancashire Education Authority guidelines. Full document available at www.promocon.co.ukLancashireSchoolsDocument.pdf
Other useful resources: www.eric.org.uk; Promocon www.promocon.co.uk;