Quality seats of learning

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Toilets offer a vital indicator of schools' overall well-being, writes Paul Blum

IF YOU really want to take a solid measurement of how good a school is, then forget the baseline data look at the toilets and the wash basins.

I am working in a school that is expecting to get an academy rebuild. School leaders who are lucky enough to be getting new buildings should give the design of this one feature as much thought as their new ICT suites. Very few secondaries can boast a decent set of toilets that are accessible to pupils at any time of day, are kept clean, have an appropriate degree of privacy and yet are safe and secure places.

Getting the balance right is difficult too much privacy and the gangs of smokers congregate, graffiti artists etch and carve and, worst of all, a tiny handful of poo-smearers start to daub walls and ceilings or would-be "arsonists" set fire to toilet rolls. Too little privacy and the pupils will not use the loos. They don't want to go into a tiny, flimsy, low-doored cubicle when pupils around them are hanging about watching their every move.

The toilets can quickly become a place where some of a school's worst bullying goes on. Ideally, toilets should be in a place public enough for some members of staff to see comings and goings, with a security camera near the outside door as well just in case sabotage occurs. But the toilets do need to be available at all times. Some schools lock them during lesson times or insist that pupils can only use them if they have a special note. They have to wait while the designated member of staff is found with the ceremonial key. Meanwhile, of course, accidents can happen.

In some cases, desperate pupils resort to peeing in quiet parts of corridors or doing even worse behind cupboards. Some climb out of school to go home to the toilet because they can't face the hassle of using one in school. And many more teenagers than you might suspect will simply go all day without relieving themselves. They would rather die than get caught short at school with an upset stomach.

Providing good-quality toilets for pupils sometimes involves a difficult trade-off: accessibility versus security. There is no point in having lovely new toilets if you keep them locked to stop them being vandalised. And there is no point in keeping your toilets open if they are dirty, unwelcoming and dangerous.

I am convinced that good practice has got to involve thinking carefully about where you locate your toilets. Every school new or old, primary or secondary requires a system for dealing with the children's use of toilets. Security needs to be balanced against easy, round-the-clock availability. How can "every child matter" if it takes a pupil 15 minutes to find an open toilet?

Paul Blum is deputy headteacher at a school in north London


The latest government guidance recommends:

No urinals boys get embarrassed, particularly at puberty

Locking toilets

Shared washing area to reduce bad behaviour

Trough sinks to reduce the risk of flooding

Glass door or wall so that teachers can see into the washing area

Location of washing areas where teachers can keep an eye on them.

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