It was on Monday 5 September 1983 that my fear of school toilets began. On one of those glorious late-summer mornings, I went around to knock for my friend Milton so that we could walk together on our first day of secondary school. We were both very nervous.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,’’ his elder brother, who was in the year above, reassured us. “But, whatever you do, don’t agree to go and see the blue goldfish…”
Apparently, the older boys would invite the newbies to see the “blue goldfish” swimming in the toilets and then pull the flush over their heads.
That was not going to happen to me. For most of my time in school, I never used the toilet if there were older boys in there – preferring to sit through lessons, busting for a wee. I was not, of course, alone. There’s a grand tradition of school-toilet fear among students that is still continuing today.
Part of the problem is embarrassment over the act itself. We are squeamish about sanitation; for some reason, we feel the need to hide our natural daily expulsions. Also, school toilets don’t tend to be the nicest places for a sit-down.
Just as much of a problem, though, is the fact that within the strict confines of education establishments, with their rules and routines, there is only one place where the authorities have little reach: the bogs, the lav, the loo, the shitter, the cludgie, the netty. Hence, here reside the pranksters, the pests, the popular and, quite often, the downright poisonous.
Toilets of terror
School toilets are, for many students, no-go areas. But has it always been this way? At some point in the long journey of education did the school toilet change from being a beautiful bog to a khazi of catastrophe?
As both a history teacher and a man who grew up to have a shy bladder, I had to know. I set about investigating the school toilet so that I could understand what went wrong, whether we can fix it and what the perfect school toilet might look like.
According to Greg Jenner, the history nerd behind CBBC’s Horrible Histories and the author of the wonderful A Million Years in a Day: a curious history of everyday life, we never used to have reservations over the act of toileting or being in restrooms.
Take the Romans, for example. “Roman public bogs were an open room where people of mixed genders sat side-by-side on long benches and gossiped politely while they emptied their bowels into the sewers below,” he explains.
“Being a Briton for whom even eye contact on a Tube train is unbearably intrusive, this fills me with mortifying dread, but the Romans were not perturbed.”
There's only one place where the authorities have little reach - the bogs
The tribes that ruled Britain after the Roman departure clearly had no hang-ups either, especially the Vikings. Apparently, they were happy to defecate anywhere and everywhere. In the archaeological community, finding preserved Viking faeces is rather a mundane event.
Even as late as the 17th century, it would appear that going to the toilet was not seen as a private and intimate event. Jenner describes how a modern person would be horrified to visit the sumptuous court of Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles. A visitor would often see, sitting in the middle of the court, on his “throne”, “the most powerful man in Europe…having a shit”, as the historian rather colourfully puts it.
The first historical reference to school toilets that Jenner has come across is a 16th-century document referring to Eton College. The entrepreneurial teachers would sell the boys’ urine to be used in the process of softening leather. Perhaps this is a tradition that could be resurrected to help cash-strapped academies? During the English Civil War, most pubs had a bucket for men to pee into to help in gunpowder production, and in the Bishops’ War (1639-1640) there were buckets in churches. When times are tough, everyone should do their, erm, bit. There was no note as to whether the boys at Eton were particularly shy about peeing in front of each other, though.
And so, like with most of the hang-ups in our society – sexism, football, the Empire – it appears our anxieties about privacy on the toilet started with the Victorians. Fuelled by civic pride and paid for with money from new factories and mills, ornate public toilets began to appear, with urinals and separate cubicles to defecate in. In a society where the hint of a female ankle was a scandal, these new public toilets were, of course, just for men. Women could only venture outside for as long as their bladders could hold.
This preoccupation with the privacy of private acts was extended to schools. Toilets were an important issue in schools that sprang up after the 1870 Education Act, which introduced compulsory primary education. The school inspector’s report of 1878 for Hirnant School in Wales recommended: “…the school is without privies. I advise that the grant be not paid till the clerk of the school board reports that the privies are erected and in use.”
This is effectively like Ofsted saying: “Put some bogs in or we’re shutting you down.”
The standalone school toilet was born.
To pee or not to pee
Initially, these toilets did not seem to cause universal dread. Reports of the facilities up until the 1970s are pretty mixed. One maths teacher I spoke to remembers being “bloody furious” when, on his first day at boarding school more than 40 years ago, he discovered the toilet cubicles had no doors.
But other people I have chatted to, particularly from the Golden Generation born in the 1940s, spoke about their school toilets with some fondness.
The turning point appears to have been the 1970s. It seems that while the Victorians made us consider whether being truly civilised meant that our perfectly natural passing of material – fluid or other – should not be witnessed in any form, audible or visible, by anyone else; it was, in fact, the increased consumerism of the 1960s and 1970s that really made us believe it.
Suddenly, more people could afford perfumes, deodorants and fitted showers, and that tipped the balance and made bodily smells and bodily functions truly ours to hide and something to feel shameful about.
Going to the toilet at school? No chance of that any more.
The school loo was depicted as a bolthole of anarchy for rule-weary teens
But it was not just embarrassment that stopped – and still stops – students sticking their hand up to request a toilet trip. Even if we did manage to get over our prudishness about the privy, there were other reasons to re-route past the restroom. Cleanliness, for example: for too long, toilets rarely saw a cleaner and so were adorned with detritus and graffiti. Bogs became exactly that. Today, too many schools still fall short on cleanliness.
And then you have the fact that, from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, school toilets began to serve the dual function of being a place to relieve yourself and a place for children to meet and communicate away from the constant prying eyes of staff.
This was a fact demonstrated clearly in film, in books and on television from this period onwards: the school loo was depicted as a bolthole of anarchy for rule-weary teens; a setting for bullying, pranks, illicit deals and, improbably, passion.
In reality, things were often much worse. What was stopping you going for a wee was not just a fear that someone might witness or hear it (or simply know you had done it), but that those already in there would do you some damage. These knights of the pedestals had conquered their own worries by being the only thing to worry about – though they probably didn’t have a dump in there, either.
One successful headteacher I spoke to vividly remembers sitting in a smoke-filled toilet cubicle, terrified, not daring to move a muscle, while three older girls, who often picked on her, chatted by the sinks.
Technology has made things worse. If you do make it to the cubicle in today’s schools, you then need to consider the height of the doors. One 21st-century school toilet terror is having a smartphone being held under or above the toilet door so that your straining attempts to poo can be instantly shared all over social media.
All this embarrassment, subterfuge and high jinks might sound funny, but it really isn’t.
The fear of toilets can be especially acute for girls who are just starting their periods. In many schools there simply isn’t enough room to manoeuvre. This is exacerbated by the dispensers for sanitary products, typically an afterthought in toilet design. No wonder a significant handful of girls choose to miss out on their education for a few days each month rather than suffer these humiliations.
Problems can even start outside. What about the transgender children who need to worry about which door to walk through? This year in the US, a woman brought a case that argued the “ladies” and “gents” signs on doors were discriminatory, and there is an ongoing debate about whether gender-neutral toilets are the answer. And what of disabled students with their own signposted door?
There are problems here, too, with suggestions that disabled facilities within existing toilet rooms are preferable. Most schools also have disabled toilet facilities as separate from those used by other children.
“According to members of a workshop that we ran, separate disabled toilets can give the message to disabled children that they are different,” says Jenny Slater, senior lecturer in education and disability studies at Sheffield Hallam University. “If the facilities aren’t suitable for them, then disabled people can feel that they are an inconvenience and they are not welcome.”
An unhealthy fear
If we take all this together, is it really that surprising that many children hold on until they get home? The negative impacts of this are numerous. Problems such as urinary tract infection, dysfunctional voiding [not emptying one’s bladder normally], constipation, dehydration and bedwetting could be avoided if we got school toilets right. Some 15,000 children a year go to hospital in England with severe childhood constipation and urinary tract infections.
Rhia Favero, of the children’s bowel and bladder charity ERIC, tells me of a 17-year-old child who stopped eating during the day at school for fear that she may have to use the toilet. Thousands of children deliberately do not drink during the day so they will not have to use the toilet.
Health problems can be exacerbated by worrying about washrooms. ERIC launched the Right to Go campaign in 2014 to highlight the issue of toilets in school. It says that one in 12 students in the UK has an ongoing continence problem and in a survey it conducted, almost half of respondents said poor school toilet facilities contributed a little or a lot to their difficulty.
So, what is the answer?
End the lunacy of teachers controlling the bodily functions of pupils
There are several pressure groups that are trying to improve things. ERIC launched the “Bog Standard” campaign in 2004 and was close to getting legislation changed so that school toilets had equal legal footing as adult toilets in the workplace. Unfortunately, the change of government in 2010 put an end to this.
Meanwhile, Slater has launched a campaign called “Around the Toilet” to respond to the stories of people who find accessing toilets a challenge. The project has produced a “toilet toolkit” to support planners and architects in fully understanding everyone’s needs.
There has been standard guidance published. Michelle Barkley is an architect with experience designing toilets for public spaces. She helped develop British Standard 6465, which applies to school toilets. This clearly states the number of toilets and washbasins that are recommended in schools and key aspects of toilet design. She told me that details such as floor-to-ceiling doors and effective ventilation were now taken into consideration when planning new toilets for any public space.
However, the Department for Education’s published advice stresses to planners that “the regulations do not set a minimum number of fittings to be provided”.
Favero feels that any government directives, rather than just recommendations, on the design and quality of school toilets are a long way off.
Times are a-changin’
Thankfully, some schools are taking a lead. Keziah Featherstone is headteacher at the Bridge Learning Campus all-through school in Bristol. At her school, the toilets are in an alcove off a main corridor.
Communal sinks are in the middle of the alcove, and mixed gender cubicles, with floor to ceiling doors, are positioned around the alcove (to be clear, this is not a separate room of mixed gender, but open space with individual cubicles). Some of the cubicles are designed for disabled use. Is this approach a success?
“The school toilets are never mentioned now in pupil-voice sessions. There is very little vandalism. All pupils can now feel safe using the toilet,” says Featherstone.
She thinks it is vital that school leaders prioritise improving school toilets, even in times when funding is tighter than ever in some parts of the country. “The toilet is one of the few places in school where a child can be alone. When they are alone and quiet, we want them to know that we value them,” she says.
As far as I can tell, the set-up here seems pretty close to what we should all be aiming for in schools.
As adults in a school, we really need to act on this, regardless of the assistance we are given from elsewhere – namely, government. We need to challenge the culture of pupils using the toilets as a social area.
The communal areas in toilets need to be open and easily accessible to everyone. This will end the tradition of the school toilet being seen as the haven for the bullies, smokers and truants. If children want a safe space away from prying eyes to simply be social and interact with one another, then perhaps another solution needs to be found that does not disrupt toilets.
We need to ensure that toilets are clean and accessible to all pupils – on their terms, not ours. And we need to try and ease the tension about toileting in general; through talking openly about it, perhaps.
Most of all, if we can make the toilets safe, then we need to end the lunacy of teachers controlling the bodily functions of pupils.
Slater told me of one visiting teacher from Sweden who was left speechless after seeing a British child having to ask permission to pop for a wee – and then being denied. In Sweden, and many other countries, it is perfectly normal for pupils to go without permission, and their education system hasn’t crumbled. If the government is recommending a ratio of one toilet per 20 pupils, how can 1,000 children in an average secondary school all be able to get to a toilet in a short 15-minute break?
How many times do pupils need to say, via pupil voice, “Sort out the minging toilets, please” before we act?
“I always judge any space – a shop, a restaurant, a school, by its toilets. It shows that they really value the people using that space,” says Slater.
Do the toilets in your schools show the pupils that you value them?
John Stanier is assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School in Devon. He tweets @JohnStanier1
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