No one likes to talk about toilets, but everyone likes to flush the one on display at the Science Museum in London. "Let's do that again!" says six-year-old Daniel Brown from Chadwell Heath in Essex, and so we do. Then, like the thousands who have stood here before, we stare at the brown plastic turd as it whooshes away and then magically reappears.
Daniel flushes again and I ask him what he thinks of his school toilets. Does he like those, too? There is a long silence, broken by his mother, Denise. "Oh, they've got special little ones at his school and they really are good, " she says. "But you won't get him to talk about it."
Daniel is in good company: this is not the easiest of topics for most people. Teachers, pupils and even some of the experts laugh when I phone them to discuss toilets and schools. "I still cannot figure out if this is a wind-up, " says one psychologist. Another contact exclaims, "I hope you aren't going to say I am an expert!" I assure the expert that I wouldn't dream of such a thing.
The Office of Standards in Education is not forthcoming on the subject. "I don't think I've ever seen a comment about the toilets in a report," says a spokeswoman. "That's not surprising, because our focus is primarily education. " Ofsted views toilets as part of the bricks and mortar but not the ethos or culture of a school. "Unless there is something really frightful I don't suppose we would mention them. It's just not the focus of what we go in there to do," adds the spokeswoman.
And yet for the pupils' this is territory which most certainly does matter. Ask any 11-year-old about their fears on transferring to secondary school and they will tell you it's the dread of being "bog-washed" by bigger, older pupils. What went on in the toilets is part of childhood memories and school folklore. After all, some children seem to live there, smoking, gossiping or plotting, hidden away from grown-ups, although these days it is likely they will be locked out of them for much of the school day. Everyone has a memory and a story to tell, be it of tears, terror or excruciating embarrassment.
John MacBeath, professor of education at the University of Strathclyde and about to join the Government's task force on standards, is an unashamed expert who's heard more toilet tales than most as part of his work for the Quality in Education Centre. He says it's a topic that won't go away when you're trying to find out what makes a good school. "I've done an awful lot of consultations and workshops, and every time we mention toilets it always provokes - and I do mean always - a big discussion. It's one of the things that rings the loudest bell with people, probably because it's not talked about very much."
One of the most common complaints from parents is that their children come home cross-legged and desperate. The usual explanation is that the toilets are dirty, the doors don't have locks, and there's never any toilet paper. The lack of privacy and the dirtiness render them off limits to many children.
In some schools the toilets are synonymous with bullying, intimidation or even assault. Shockingly, in a case publicised last month, a nine-year-old girl was allegedly gang-raped in the toilets of her west London primary school. They were supposed to be locked during the break.
Dr Phillip Jones, senior educational psychologist for Kirklees, based in Huddersfield, believes toilets are used as an alternative world. "People talk about things in toilets and tell jokes there that they wouldn't elsewhere, " he says. "It's accepted that conversations or swearing or something like smoking in the toilets is not in the public domain." In some schools this alternative world can be terrifying, in others it is a healthy outlet of escape. Dr Christine Griffin, a senior lecturer in social psychology at the University of Birmingham, is critical of adults who seem determined to ignore the issues. "I do think toilets are an awfully fraught area of difficulty between teachers and students and that they are used in complex ways," she says. "There is hardly any research that has focused on this. It's seen as funny and ludicrous and somehow embarrassing."
She cites her own and other research involving teenage girls. "Particularly in a mixed sex school, girls will often use toilets as a sort of haven, somewhere that is away from teachers and boys. In one piece of research, working-class girls said that some sections of the school were no-go areas because the boys dominated so." In that context the loos become a private place of safety.
This was undoubtedly the thinking that prompted one headteacher in Hertfordshire to spend the school's limited resources on refurbishing the girls' toilets, complete with well-lit mirrors. His rationale? The school existed for his students, and the females seemed to prefer to spend their free time in front of the very mirrors he had just improved. If he showed respect for them, perhaps they would return the favour.
Mostyn Phillip, headmaster of Ebbw Vale comprehensive, believes toilets are partly a safety issue and must be patrolled regularly: "They can be centres of bullying, vandalism and graffiti. They are in the world at large, aren't they? Unless toilets are supervised closely, they are going to be vandalised. "
After safety comes cleanliness. John MacBeath says: "Schools that have impeccable toilets often have a day cleaner who keeps a regular eye on them and replenishes toilets rolls and the like. They do this at motorway service stations sometimes, and you see those little signs saying, 'This toilet was last cleaned at 2pm'. Schools could use that same model."
Consulting pupils is part of Macbeath's approach: devise a structured questionnaire or ask the school council for pupils' advice. "That," he says, "gives them a stake in it."
The Science Museum has gone one step further. Just down the hall from the toilet exhibit in its Secret Life of the Home area are the real things. But these, too, are noteworthy, and not just for their smooth lavender walls and thick blue panes of glass. They are designed so that curious children can see how the plumbing works, with blue arrows tracing clean water pipes and yellow tracing those carrying waste. "It didn't cost any extra," says Anthony Richards, assistant education manager at the museum. "It shows that it is not the end of the story when you flush the toilets."
OfsTed may not believe it, but toilets are an indicator of the quality of a school. The Scottish inspectorate now takes them into account as part of the "overall ethos of a school". That includes health, safety and educational aspects. "The thesis is, if you've got a school that really cares about the culture, then they should care about toilets as well," says John MacBeath.
So, the next time you go to a school, make a point of going to the toilets. There is just a chance that you will see a plastic box like that on display at the Science Museum, labelled "Japanese flushing noisemaker, 1995". This provides "10 seconds of flushing sounds with the purpose of masking any impolite sounds". Have you learned something now? It's just one kind of education that toilets can provide.
WHAT PUPILS SAY
* "When we need the toilet we need to get a note, then empty our pockets of any pens, so we can't write on the walls, then write our name, class, time and teacher in a book and get a key to open the door. I think this is terrible because I am not the sort of person who would do this but I get treated as if I am guilty."
* "There should be more sanitary bins and a Tampax machine as it is embarrassing approaching the open office to ask for a sanitary towel."
* "There is so much smoking going on there, and there is not enough done about it. I think that those caught should clean the toilets every day for a week. That would sort them out."
* "Fourth-years are in there and play music and smoke. I don't know why they haven't been caught, and Ihope that some action is taken."
source: quality in education