It's proverbial: "wriggling like a little kid who wants to go to the toilet". And we all know what it feels like. So why are children still coming out of (usually, first-year junior) school with wet clothing because "teacher wouldn't let me go to the toilet 'cause it wasn't break"?
Perfectly normal teachers, adults who would not hit their charges or wound them with sarcasm, are indifferent to what a child - and wouldn't you? - feels as severe humiliation. Why?
Almost certainly, the superficial reasons given are not the real ones. "Training them to last", seems scarcely to be the point since it's only the ones who can't last who get this form of training. "Establishing discipline" won't cut much ice with anyone who's seen a well-disciplined infant class hardly miss a beat as two of its members trot off to the cloakroom. And "preparation for adult life" seems unconvincing; teaching is actually one of the few jobs still around where taking five minutes to visit the powder room will cause ill effects. So what is going on?
Two main answers suggest themselves. Institutionally, the junior school draws a little tighter those "shades of the prison house" which the poet Wordsworth so memorably envisioned "closing around the growing boy" (or girl). Humiliation, as any recruit to the army knows, is an efficient creator of conformity. Stay in line, kid.
Looking deeper, the teacher of older primary schoolchildren is beginning a process of withdrawal from the more intimate motherliness of the infant teacher. If the teacher identifies too closely with the needs and discomforts of the children, he or she risks losing "professional detachment" and being swamped with 30-odd sets of demands for individual consideration. Then the space for intellectual clarity, for a shared teaching and learning endeavour, gets compressed and the teacher feels compromised as a leader of cognitive skills. with thoughts like these, how do you introduce joined-up writing when you are thinking about a sad expression on a child's face?
Yet are these really so opposite as such a question suggests? Just as we all know the squirming discomfort of needing the toilet or the distracting gnawing of hunger, so we all, if we are honest, know that we pay little attention when our bodily needs nag us. If someone in authority then gives us the unspoken message that our bodily needs, so closely part of our sense of self, are not worth consideration, that is not much of a boost to our ability to concentrate and be creative.
Of course, there is the discipline angle. Children may be "trying it on" when they ask to visit the toilet. One way to solve this is to declare cloakrooms out of bounds during lesson time. This is a blanket rule and saves the teacher having to consider the child's predicament at all. Blanket rules are very useful in resolving disputes. But in a classroom they can be a sign of weakness, not strength. If a teacher feels insecure in his or her knowledge of individual children, he or she will rely on a blanket rule rather than having to use personal judgment. If a headteacher feels insecure in the judgment of his or her teachers, blanket rules will be instituted throughout the school. The school will be a tight ship.
Do we really want our schools to be tight ships? We may do; we may require that spontaneity and individual needs be sacrificed to the timetable and the curriculum. we may want children to learn unpleasant lessons. If so, we should say so. But if our schools have all kinds of mission statements which talk about "development of the whole person" and about "releasing creativity" as well as about "firm structures", then those schools should think again about how they respect the intimate experiences of the children in their charge and ask themselves, would they let their own children wet themselves instead of going to the toilet?