Case study: the headteacher

7th March 2003 at 00:00
I remember with dread the long, cold, perilous journey across the snow-bound schoolyard to the outside toilets in the winter of 1963. As infant pupils we undertook a trip that even Frodo Baggins would have baulked at, possibly incurring the indignity of the headteacher having to come 30 minutes later and antifreeze us from the icy seats. My, how times have changed. Or have they?

I recall reading a Daily Mirror article in 1996 about how secondary school pupils in the London borough of Haringey were pioneering pupil democracy by getting the headteacher to allow older children to use soft toilet paper.

This incensed me so much that I rang the Mirror's education correspondent to complain that these pupils were nowhere near pioneers; there were hundreds of school councils at that time, and we even had one ourselves whereby four to 11-year-olds met to discuss school matters.

We had taken a leap of faith and given the children their own bank account.

They had their own chequebook and had appointed councillors and treasurers to write the cheques. It was their responsibility to discuss with their peers what they would like to do to improve their school, to raise funds and work with the school secretary to submit orders for appropriate equipment.

The journalist came to Dorset and spent a day with us. He saw how children could improve a school. At that time we were also receiving good publicity through our attempts to educate a blind pupil in our reception class. We were seeking funds to build a multi-sensory adventure trail so she could play alongside the other children. Bids to the National Lottery fund and the local authority both failed, so the school council decided to raise funds through fortnightly "healthy" biscuit sales and build their own trail.

Redundant traffic lights were salvaged from the council depot along with tactile street signs and bobbly paving slabs. Prisoners at HMP Verne on Portland made wooden Wendy houses, cars and tractors and the Weymouth harbourmaster even dredged up a sunken boat for the children to play in. A local Tarmac company came in on Saturday mornings to construct a walkway.

The resulting article in December 1996 brought us much goodwill. By now the children could see their effectiveness as a constructive force for change within the school was highly regarded.

At a subsequent summit, Year 5 and 6 girls complained that their toilet cubicles were too low and that people could easily see over the top of them. The locks were also poor and could be opened from the outside. The complaint was taken seriously and the 14-strong council decamped to the girls' loos to inspect them. It was true; they were shabby 20-year-old original infant stock and well past their sell-by date. The boys' toilets were the same.

I found the phone number of the Armitage-Venesta sanitary ware company's head office and gave the receiver to the children. It would be their responsibility to make the call and invite a representative to come to discuss options for refurbishment. He duly came and, for the first time, boys and girls spent a long time in each other's loos measuring cubicles; this was an education in itself. They were able to discuss fittings and finishes, colours and completion dates.

A week later the quotes arrived. The cheapest of the three was pound;1,200 but the children's response staggered me. Far from being demoralised, they resolved to raise the funds themselves. They had just pound;400 in their account and it would take a lot of biscuit sales to make up the difference.

My repairs and maintenance budget was exhausted so I was unable to help them. The children's resolve was remarkable. We decided to emulate the tactics of the Haringey pupils a few years previously; we were sure our friendly local newspaper reporter would support us. I considered it only courteous to inform our local authority building surveyor that the children would be in next week's Echo, with their glum faces appearing over Lilliputian-sized cubicles. Lo and behold, new cubicles appeared from nowhere, and in the children's preferred colour.

News about the children's sanitary success began to spread and Teacher Update magazine carried an article calling our school council the "youngest democracy in the world". The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and Oxfam took an interest in our pupils' efforts at sustainability and citizenship. As a headteacher I could see the mature contribution pupils wished to make to the school's fabric. Clean, attractive, private and pleasant loos were as important to them as any adult.

To this day I would urge any prospective parent visiting a school for the first time to ask the headteacher if they could visit the children's toilets. This would soon show whether the avowed caring ethos of the school is enacted on a daily basis. It would also demonstrate how much the school values and respects its pupils - the citizens we will come to rely upon in the future.

While most council meetings these days discuss balls in the playground, the children continue to discuss toilets, hygiene and cleanliness. Our pupils recently voted that the girls could have soft toilet paper; the boys didn't want them. We also discussed an al fresco jacuzzi for the school playground - a long way from the winter of '63.

Stuart McLeod is headteacher at Southwell primary school, Portland, Dorset

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