Are you ready for unisex toilets?

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Neither parents nor pupils are upset by such a proposal at a Stockport school. It's only education officials who are worried, writes Kevin Berry

Ally McBeal is coming to Bramhall High School in Cheshire. The US television series is famous for, among other things, the mixed sex toilets where the self-obsessed, neurotic lawyers meet to gossip, discuss their hang-ups - and perform their ablutions. When the idea was first mooted at Bramhall - in response to repeated vandalism and bullying - there was not the level of outrage you might expect. And if some parents expressed concern, others were quite prepared to be enlightened.

In fact, the toilets have now been built at a cost of pound;30,000: the cubicles are in one long row and their doors ensure absolute privacy. Walls are made of breeze-block, so writing on them will be difficult. All that a duty teacher need do is open the main doors at either end of the room. And there are no hiding places because closed circuit television cameras have recently been installed. But for the time being, only the girls are using them.

The local authority seems to have washed its hands of the affair, so to speak, and has reacted by raising concerns about the use of CCTV in schools as well quoting building regulations that insist on separate hand basins for girls and boys. It is now waiting for the Department for Education to issue a ruling.

The radical proposal first came from John Peckham, Bramhall's headteacher. "I saw mixed-sex toilets working well when I lived in France," he says, "and I've heard of them being successful in Canada and New York schools.

"Shortly after 1996, when Ofsted first mentioned the state of our toilets, we managed to scrape together enough money to refurbish one set," says Peckham, "but within two weeks they had been vandalised, so we had to do something drastic.

"We have talked and talked to the student council and the message was, 'We want to feel safe when we go in there.' So supervision was paramount."

The building work was finished in September. Although some parents initially voiced fears about the concept, they have been noticeably less concerned since seeing them.

Tony Wilson is a parent governor and father of two boys at Bramhall. He greets the unisex toilets as "a step forward for the management and care of pupils".

"I would say that 90 per cent of our parents would be more than happy for their children to use the new toilets," he says.

The pupils, too, welcome the new loos. "After all, we all use unisex toilets at home, don't we?" says Lucy Elsender in Year 10.

The DFEE has not inspected the changes but is expected to issue a ruling this week.

Certainly, the significance of the toilets in the life of a school has received too little attention. Inspectors failed Neithrop junior school in Banbury, Oxfordshire, citing the school's ageing toilets as one of their reasons, while many other inspections have reported scathing comments about schools' lavatories.

Most school toilets smell. They are spoken of in negative terms. They are often secretive places where intimidation takes place and in which supervision becomes something o a minefield. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that some children simply never go to them.

Surprisingly, such behaviour is not essentially harmful to children's overall health. Dr Harvey Marcovitch, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says pupils will not necessarily be affected by an aversion from the school toilets, although he points out that some children need to go more often than others. Sufferers of Crohn's disease, for example, will need immediate access at all times. And "accidents" can have devastating psychological effects, he adds.

Meanwhile, at Neithrop juniors, a new head, Christine Lewin, has overseen the building of some new - single-sex - toilets paid for with the school's special measures funding.

"Everyone in school has to be involved," Ms Lewin says. "The newness of the toilets does help, but we are encouraging good habits. And so far, I'm pleased to say there has been no silliness. The children do value the loos."

Supervision, she suggests, is easiest when all adults and children know what is expected of them, and midday supervisors are asked to make their language less negative and condemnatory.

Schools with good loos tend to make a point of making sure the children see them being cleaned, while new arrivals are taken in small groups and told exactly what the school expects of them. Sadly, many infant and junior schools too often neglect to do this, shortage of nursery nurses and an attitude of "it's not our job" being the main reasons.

In terms of the design, high cubicle doors will discourage silly behaviour, while heavy double doors at entrances are less than helpful. Importantly, the best-kept loos are always treated as an integral part of the school and never tucked away.

Where school toilets are unavoidably off the beaten track, some have deliberately made that area busier - by having meetings nearby, or by changing the direction of pedestrian traffic, or making sure that adults have to pass by regularly.

At St. John's C of E infants school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, parents have likened the school toilets to those found in swish hotels. Inspectors who paid a call were also impressed.

The toilets are superbly maintained; indeed, they are every bit as comfortable and presentable as the adults' facilities. The headteacher, Hilary Gomersall, shows them off to parents on tours of the school. Apparently, the surprise on their faces is something to behold.

Walls are painted and are unmarked. There is a wallpaper border, curtains on the windows, plants, carefully mounted children's paintings. There is a bin for the paper towels and extra supplies of paper, soap and towels are kept in a cupboard - all the children have to do is fetch an adult.

"Parents used to put pieces of soft toilet paper into their children's pockets," says one teacher, Tricia Chapman. "But not now. We have the very best. Our children appreciate what has been done for them. The loos encourage good behaviour and visiting children are amazed."

Tellingly, pupils at St John's no longer use the word "bogs" and speak in noticeably positive terms about their new toilets.

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