Don't go there

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Dirty and smelly, with no privacy and the risk of a run-in with the class bully, pupils' lavatories are not always for the faint-hearted.

Matthew Brown reports on a campaign to get schools to clean up their act

Farah Butt doesn't hate school. In fact she's a bright and active pupil who is chair of her school council and preparing for GCSEs. No, she doesn't dislike going to school; but she dreads going at school.

"I hate the school toilets," says the 15-year-old. "I'd rather avoid going than use them. The facilities are atrocious. Either there's no soap, or there's no toilet roll, or the locks don't work; you need to get a friend to come and hold the door for you."

Farah may not hate school, but sometimes she can't wait to get home. "I used to hold it in all day," she says. "I was busting by the middle of the afternoon."

Whether you loved school or loathed it, everyone remembers the state of the toilets. Covered in graffiti, splattered in paper, vandalised by the tough kids, and filled with smoking gangs of lurking bullies ready to tease you over the length of your hair, the shape of your tie, the size of your pencil case. The only safe time to go was during lessons, and what teacher would allow that?

Little, it seems, has changed. Farah isn't the only one who finds the toilets at her school, Robert Napier secondary in Gillingham, a bit "skanky". As head of the school council, she knew it was "the main issue" for other pupils too, so she raised it at the Medway Youth Parliament, a representative forum of school pupils, youth club members and young people.

"Everyone had the same issue in their school," she says, "so we decided to do something about it." Last summer the parliament surveyed children and teachers from 11 schools in the Medway area. Thirty per cent of pupils said cleanliness was poor, half said they didn't have suitable facilities, more than half said doors didn't lock properly, and more than one in four girls and one in two boys said they lacked privacy because doors and partitions were flimsy or the wrong size.

For 40 per cent of pupils, fear of the behaviour of other pupils stopped them going; 50 per cent said the toilets were locked during the day; and 96 per cent of girls and 76 per cent of boys said teachers sometimes stopped them going. As many as 30 per cent took time off school to avoid the agony.

Medway's report is only the latest in a series of surveys that have led to a national campaign, Bog Standard, launched last month and supported by MPs from all parties, to improve school toilets.

Penny Dobson is director of Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence (Eric), the pressure group that set up the campaign. "Poor standards of toilets should not be accepted as part of school life," she says. "This is a worrying situation that can affect children's health and concentration." Eric was behind the Water is Cool in School campaign to get children to drink more during the day, but school staff soon realised children didn't want to drink because they didn't like using school toilets. "The two problems feed each other," says Ms Dobson.

Seeking hard evidence, Eric asked school nurses from the the Community Practitioners' and Health Visitors' Association to look at lavatory conditions in 928 primary and secondary schools. The results were shocking.

They found that 84 per cent of toilets were not cleaned properly, 40 per cent had no toilet paper or soap, 25 per cent had no lock, and 72 per cent had doors that allowed other pupils to peer over the top.

Seats were often missing or broken, floors were dirty, and there were no hand towels. Almost half of secondary school toilets and 40 per cent of those in primary schools were described as smelly. Access was restricted for more than a third of pupils, even during breaks.

For Ms Dobson it is a simple issue. "Access to water is a basic human right, and access to good quality toilets is too," she says. Bog Standard cites article five of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights - "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" - and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which "reinforces fundamental human dignity" and "seeks respect for children".

She points out that there is no UK legislation governing the standard of pupils' facilities, just regulations on the minimum number of toilets and washbasins. In contrast, legislation covering toilets in the workplace - including teachers in schools - requires that they be suitable, accessible, clean and well maintained, and have good lighting, ventilation, and washing facilities, with hot and cold water, soap and drying equipment.

Bog Standard wants similar legislation for pupils. "We're trying to find out which department is responsible, but no one seems to know," says Ms Dobson. "It falls between education and health, but it needs to change."

The organisation also wants Ofsted to include school toilets in inspections to ensure standards are enforced. In the meantime, it has published a 12-point charter to encourage schools to make improvements (see box). Many schools may not realise the extent of the damage that can be done to children's health and education, says Ms Dobson.

Dr Katherine Price, consultant paediatrician at Sheffield Children's Hospital, says one in 75 six to 10-year-olds and one in 100 ten to 12-year-olds have soiling problems, while 0.5 per cent of eight to 15-year-olds suffer from day wetting.

"That means, in an average primary school of 300 pupils, one or two have wetting or soiling problems, or both," she says. Dr Price's own research revealed that 26 per cent of children urinate at school only if desperate, and 43 per cent would never defecate. She also discovered that more than a third were refused access to toilets during lessons, while 11 per cent were subject to time restrictions.

"One boy told me the teacher put an egg timer on as he left the classroom," she says. "I can see why schools do it, because some kids do mess around, but if you've got soiling or wetting problems, it's hell. Children can't necessarily hang on like adults."

The detrimental impact on learning from ill health and missed schooling is obvious, but even minor dehydration can reduce children's ability to concentrate, says Dr Price, not to mention the distracting effects of sitting in a classroom with a bursting bladder or full bowels.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that many teachers are not fully aware of how big an issue this is for pupils. Medway's survey found that three-quarters of staff had never heard of pupils taking time off to avoid the toilets, although 13 per cent do, and, while a quarter of pupils said they had health problems from not using the loo, 88 per cent of staff were unaware of it. "It seems teachers and pupils are just not communicating," says Farah Butt. "Some children are afraid of asking teachers, but staff need training in how to be sensitive to these issues."

Not all teachers, and not all schools, are the same, however. At Southwell primary in Dorset, refurbishment cost pound;1,500, and headteacher Stuart McLeod put the pupils in charge, getting them to liaise with the suppliers, and choose the new cubicle doors and colours for the walls. Year 6 pupils do a weekly spot check and award prizes to the best-kept toilets in the school.

"Putting the kids in charge means they now appreciate the value of them," says Mr McLeod. "If we give them good facilities they respect them. I tell parents when they look at new schools, 'Go into the loos and you'll get a good idea of how good the school is'."

More case studies and information


The Bog Standard toilet charter

* Pupils must be allowed to use the toilet whenever they need to.

* There must be enough toilet cubicles for girls and boys.

* Toilet cubicles must be private and have doors that lock.

* Pupils with special needs must have suitable toilets that they can get to and use easily.

* Toilets must be looked after properly and not smell.

* Warm water and soap must be provided.

* There must be enough toilet paper in all cubicles.

* Sanitary products and sanitary disposal units must be provided in toilets for girls aged eight and over.

* Toilets must be free from bullies and smokers.

* Schools must have a policy to keep pupils' toilets clean and in good condition.

* Pupils must be involved in managing and improving their toilets.

* All complaints about toilets must be taken seriously.

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