This is not quite the rousing new year piece I’d planned, but one of the joys of my current project, which represents the voices of UK secondary school pupils, is that it takes me into areas I hadn’t previously properly considered, and which have some valuable lessons for schools.
Having gathered rather a lot informal research over the past few days (it turns out people have lots and lots to say about toilets), I’m actually quite ashamed to admit that I had never really given school toilets much thought, other than to reminisce about the stifling stink of ammonia which permeated three storeys' worth of a stairwell in a school where I once worked or to admit to a colleague that sometimes I stay a few extra moments in the toilet for a few minutes of peace, away from cries of "Mum!" and "Miss!"
When I grew up in the 1980s, school toilets were not happy places – corners of long-repressed rage, fumes both human and more herbal and toxic gossip – but I suppose that in true Pollyanna style, I assumed everything had changed.
And lots of things have. Many school toilets are state-of-the-art in appearance. Open-plan enough to ensure there are no dark corners in which dark practices can occur but private enough so that both boys and girls feel comfortable doing the things all humans need to do. Yes, ladies and gents, the gasses and seepages to which none of us is immune can be noisy and smell.
The most popular toilets seem to be the ones that have a sink inside the cubicle, with a choice between male, female and gender-neutral toilets; are spread around the school so students have options and to avoid obvious hot-spots; and ideally do not have gaps that open on to crowded corridors or have places for children to work just outside them (nope, I kid you not…).
Are school toilets a safe place?
My informal burst of research-gathering has revealed some murky corners, literally and metaphorically, that at best have made me feel slightly sick and at worst have been hugely distressing.
A very informal 24-hour Twitter poll (skewed sample, I know) shows that 43 per cent of pupils aged 11 to 18 either "rarely" (30 per cent) or "never" (13 per cent) feel "safe and comfortable using the toilets at school".
Complex bowel and bladder problems arising from young people training themselves never to use the school toilets at all; young people avoiding eating and drinking (and thus finding it harder to concentrate) in order to avoid using the toilets; tales of older girls finding opportunities to humiliate younger girls who are using the toilets; "outstanding" schools in which the toilets are used for everything that is forbidden in the rest of the school – social media, vandalism, vaping and the kinds of cruelty that I thought only existed in Grange Hill.
What surprised me most, in this day and age, when almost every establishment seems to require some kind of hygiene certification, were the tales of filth and lack of security. From one Year 11 student:
"The smell walking by is horrendous. Pupils regularly tell me they don’t go during breaks because of ‘keying’. The pupils use a coin to open the lock from the outside to expose the occupant. Pupils don’t flush, and urinate on the floors, smear excrement on the walls, and girls smear period blood on the walls."
And this, from another student in Year 9:
"They're absolutely disgusting. I also avoid drinking so I don't have to use them. I don't go at all during the school day and instead hold on all day until I get home. I'm not even sure the cleaners really clean them. I'll spare you the details but they're very rundown and dirty."
While most of us need a quiet corner in which to sob once in a while (what better than a private, clean and safe toilet?), where students use toilets to hide from the world or, more distressingly, to commit self-harm in numerous forms, we do need to think about what we can reasonably do to avoid this.
From the earliest stages of teacher training, we know that to learn best, students need to feel safe and secure. What is more intimate than using a toilet, and what is more damaging to basic wellbeing than feeling threatened, either by a dirty environment or the behaviour of others, when doing so?
There will be others out there far with far more expertise than I have on the subject, but I have been lucky enough to hear from some of them, and to combine them with the wisdom of youth. These are some of the suggestions (and yes, I too am mindful of cost and aware that some would cost more than others):
- Students use fingerprint identification for a great deal already – why not have "sign in" and "sign out" toilets so, if there is untoward behaviour, it can easily be identified.
- Have a more private toilet (ideally near a medical base) for students with more complex toileting needs.
- Having music or some kind of background noise playing in toilet areas to avoid embarrassment over certain noises.
- Having a rigorous rota to ensure supervision of toilets and checks for toilet paper, soap and basic supplies.
- Having toilets divided at least by key stage and ideally by year group.
- Having at least one toilet accessible during lesson time. Whilst teachers should be able to use professional judgement, "zero tolerance" on use of toilets during lessons can be risky.
As I type, I’m aware that most schools will do most of these things already, and also that this might come across as just another stick to beat teachers with – but it’s not meant in that spirit at all. I have admitted my own guilt at barely having given this issue a thought in the past. As ever, teachers can only do what we can do – so it's difficult to be put in charge of toileting as well as social media use, antisocial behaviour, banking skills and pretty much anything else which comes under the umbrella of our "in loco parentis" role.
But in fact, these issues affect teachers, too, with over 30 teachers contacting me with issues over their own health conditions relating to not having time to use the toilet during the day, or facilities that are simply not fit for purpose.
As an issue, it’s a good reminder that, before people, both young and old, can thrive and grow, their basic needs to be cared for and when we lose sight of this (sometimes literally, in the corner cubicle), we do so at our peril.
I’ve resisted all sorts of smart metaphors in this one, because this issue is actually very serious. I have at least, however, managed to put myself off delving into the Christmas treats again for a few hours.
Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. If you know a young person (a student or relative) interested in participating in this project, you can contact Emma on Twitter @thosethatcan