have been asked by friends more than once how they should pick a school for their child, and my response is always the same: visit the pupils' toilets during the school day.
Of course SATs and GCSE results and Ofsted reports are important, but they tell you only about aspects of the past. Value-added test results can tell you how much the school helps the attainment of pupils. Ofsted reports can tell you what the school was like when the inspectors visited. But thetoilets tell you a lot about what's going on right now.
At a very basic level, are they clean? Are there locks on the cubicles? Is there soap? Are there any towels - or an electric dryer? For girls, is there a way to obtain sanitary protection that doesn't mean having to ask out loud in a public place such as the school office? Does each cubicle have a means of disposing of sanitary protection - or are girls expected to leave cubicles with soiled towels and to get rid of them using an incinerator in a public area?
Outside breaktimes and lunchtimes, are the toilets locked or is there open access? If they are locked, how do pupils get the key?
The onset of menstruation does not always coincide with breaktimes. And having to explain why you need to leave a lesson is embarrassing enough for many girls without adding to the problem.
And so to the level two test: are there mirrors? (Atually, full-length mirrors would probably merit level three). What happens when vandalism occurs (sadly, this is almost inevitable in public toilets)? Are regular checks made? Is maintenance taken seriously and are repairs attended to as a matter of urgency? Are pupils consulted about how to avoid damage? Are cleaning and caretaking staff included in such discussions?
As Kevin Berry reports, (left), it is possible to provide decent facilities for young people. Some school toilets are undoubtedly as good as the best public ones. In at least one girls school in outer London, there are toilets in which tissues and hand cream are available; furthermore, the area is fully tiled and decorated with plants. At break times it is staffed by a "toilet attendant" (a member of the support staff who knows the girls and their families). Apparently, a lot of counselling goes on in those toilets.
And why does all this matter? I think it matters because, apart from the obvious health and hygiene aspects, school toilets tell us much about how the adults in a school think and care about the pupils.
And then there are the staff toilets, which also tell us a great deal about how the managers in the school think and care about the staff. But that's another story.
The writer is visiting professor of education at Homerton College, Cambridge