HMI, khazi division

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Mike Sullivan is the Egon Ronay of staff toilets, and he's been compiling his Good Loo Guide. Has he been to yours?

If you are lucky enough to visit a West Midlands school, I urge you to go to the loo even if you don't need to spend a penny. I visit around 40 schools a term, at all of which I am offered a cup of coffee and need to use the facilities. I can tell you the staff toilets are places where awe and wonder know no bounds.

The gents' toilets in primary schools are the bottom end of the market. You could find anything sharing space with the urinal: the Father Christmas outfit shrouded in its black bin bag, ready for another December; the broken photocopier; the caretaker's stepladder; the emergency supply of paper towels; two old sets of football strip minus goalkeeper shirts (always a market for these among the local bad lads); six dead spiders. But never, ever, a window that opens or a can of air freshener.

Over the sink at one school the caretaker has placed a notice saying "

Gentlemen don't pee in the sink use the toilet". The head told me that there had been a problem and that it was now under control. I commended her on her sleeves-rolled-up approach to management and asked if I could return with my camera to capture this example of forthright problem-solving. She readily agreed.

In infant schools there may not be a gents (no men on the staff), and I have to use the ladies' loo. These are proper palaces (or at least throne rooms) complete with curtains with ties, little china ornaments, bowls of pot pourri and, best of all, scented soap, soft toilet paper and air fresheners. I was once part of an Ofsted team in a large primary run by a tough female head who ruled that, in pursuit of equality, toilets should be unisex. The women at this school no longer suffered long queues at playtimes. Speed and efficiency were the golden rules. But the upper panels of the cubicle doors were frosted glass and silhouettes were clearly visible. The head complained that men didn't stay on the staff for long.

On a recent visit to another primary in quite a tough town, I was talking to the head about workforce reform; she had appointed additional assistants including one for ambience. I thought that I had again missed out on changes in the National Literacy Strategy (was an ambience anything like a haiku, I wondered). Resolving once again to try to keep up to date, I slunk off to the loo and there all was revealed once I had shut the door. A white towel artistically folded into a magnificent swan shape was positioned as if floating on the porcelain cover of the low level WC, a real rose clasped in its beak. Another excuse to go back with the camera.

I hate schools where staff toilets are locked so that parents, anyone making deliveries and casual visitors like me are forced to make a leap back to childhood and say "please miss may I go to the toilet?", dreading to be told that we should have gone at home. Headteachers' rooms in older schools often have ensuite facilities as an indicator of status. Lowly teachers, do not take this as an incentive for promotion. One Black Country head managed to jam the door lock and was trapped inside his loo for six and a half hours before he was rescued by the cleaner. Nobody had missed him.

Whatever the staff loo is like, it's likely to be better than the pupils'.

Last year I became a governor of a secondary school. When the head took me on a tour, the first room that he chose to show me was the boys' toilet, with its security camera set in the ceiling. He swore that it was focused on the sink area and I didn't ask to visit the monitoring suite. I thought that the individual's rights to privacy were being pushed to the limits.

It was only in the disgracefully recent past that the Government announced that there were no longer any primary schools with outdoor toilets. That might have been something to boast about at the time of Gladstone but now it's more of an embarrassing admission. What was not mentioned was that in schools where children are still taught in temporary buildings, the pupils have to run across the playground in all weathers to use toilets in the main building. This should be regarded as a national scandal and an opportunity for a TV chef or similar celebrity to lead a campaign for change.

Mike Sullivan is a former primary head, consultant and inspector based in the West Midlands

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