Facilities and access guidelines
“You can tell a school by its toilets: they say an awful lot about
a school and tell you about the value the school places on its environment
– and they can help improve pupils’ behaviour.”
Susan Lewis, Chief Inspector for Wales
Water and toilets
For children to stay healthy, they need to drink water regularly throughout
the day. They also need to empty their bladder and bowels regularly and
fully when the need first arises.
Children spend at least half their waking hours at school so how much
they drink and how often they go the toilet are important issues. Where
children are provided with open access to fresh drinking water, inadequate
fluid intake may be due, consciously or unconsciously, to toilet avoidance
or inadequate opportunities to visit the toilets.
There are occasions when children will need to ‘hold on’
before they can visit the toilet, but repeated prolonged delays can cause
distress and health problems. For some children any delay is impossible.
Each child’s bladder and bowels are individual and their bladder
and bowel capacity are very variable, function to their own timetable
and will differ according to a multitude of variable factors.
A child’s timetable is therefore unlikely to conform to the school’s
timetable, which may not be drawn up with the best interest of children’s
need to have a drink or go to the toilet in mind. Pupils may not have
the opportunity to go between each lesson and there may be long periods
in the school day without a break. Exams can also be a problem, if pupils
are not allowed to go to the toilet during an exam.
Pupils may also avoid emptying their bowels at school. This can be due
to a lack of privacy, poor toilet conditions, and not enough time to use
the toilet. Holding on can lead to constipation, which in turn can result
Despite a lack of education about healthy toileting habits, some teachers
are very understanding of the physiological needs of children and young
people, and of the problems restricted toilet access can create. Others
are unaware of, or unsympathetic to, the corresponding physical and psychological
health risks. Many schools further exacerbate the toileting (and drinking)
problems for pupils by reducing break and lunch times to a minimum to
reduce the number of incidents in the playground.
Going to the toilet 'just in case'
There is a widespread expectation that children should go to the toilet
at set times irrespective of whether the child needs to, in order to minimise
disruption to lessons. It is all too easy to reprimand the child who needs
to go during lesson time with "You should have gone at break!"
However, having set times for access to the toilet can cause “I’ll
go just in case” practices which means the bladder doesn’t
get used to holding on until it’s full. Over time, the bladder capacity
can reduce, increasing the need to visit the toilet more frequently. At
the same time, the amount of fluid a child can drink before needing to
go to the toilet is reduced. This results in a vicious circle. A child
may consciously or unconsciously ration their fluid intake, or avoid drinking
altogether, if they fear not being able to go to the toilet when they
Incontinence means difficulties in controlling the bladder and bowel.
Approximately three quarters of a million children in the UK aged between
5 and 16 suffer from incontinence. It is likely that at least two or three
pupils in every class you teach at primary level will be experiencing
continence difficulties – and one pupil in every two classes at
secondary level. The emotional and psychological difficulties of incontinence
can be devastating. Wetting your pants in class, for example, can be perceived
as a major disaster and was highlighted in a study of children’s
feelings by children as one of the most stressful events that could happen
in their lives, rating third after losing a parent and going blind.
Children with continence problems should be encouraged to make scheduled
visits to the toilet, make full use of breaks to visit the toilet and
may need to go as soon as they need to. They will need to be particularly
mindful of drinking sufficiently and regularly. If a teacher has concerns,
they can discuss these with the parent/carer and encourage them to seek
help via the school nurse or GP. The doctor or nurse can advise them and,
if necessary, refer them onto the Community Paediatrician or children’s
continence service (if this exists in their area). ERIC
can also provide information.
Good toileting practice - for children with
- This group of children should be encouraged to make full use of breaks
to visit the toilet
- They will need the opportunity to make scheduled (perhaps hourly)
visits to the toilet
- It is important for many of these children to sit down on the toilet
and spend several minutes trying to make sure the bladder and bowels
are completely empty
- They should have the opportunity to visit the toilet in privacy
- Many of these children will have a very short warning of the need
to go and may need to go frequently, even if they have just been. They
should be allowed to leave the class to visit the toilet immediately,
without fuss, and without having to wait for permission. Avoid causing
embarrassment or making the child 'hang on'
- Consider where the pupils sit in class in relation to the door and
when regrouping pupils for different activities
- In order to develop their bladder capacity and to help avoid constipation
and soiling problems, it is important they drink water regularly throughout
the school day
Good toileting practice - for children
without continence problems:
- Most children should be encouraged to only go to the toilet when they
feel the need to go
- Should not be taught to go 'just in case'
- Should not be subject to prolonged delays before going
- Should be able to go to the toilet without adverse comment or restriction
- Should have open access to toilets when the need arises
- Should have the opportunity to visit the toilet in privacy
- Should be encouraged to drink water regularly throughout the school
A few children can develop a sudden problem of needing to go
to the toilet frequently and urgently, up to several times in an hour.
This condition, which mostly affects young boys, is known as Frequency-Urgency
Syndrome. It tends to get better on its own and, if treated sympathetically,
will usually settle down within a few weeks. However, for some children,
it may last for up to a year or longer.
There are many factors that may influence bladder function, such as anxiety,
diet, caffeine consumption, and going from somewhere warm out into the
cold. It is worth noting that almost everyone needs the toilet if they
become emotionally upset.
Making school toilets usable
For children to use school toilets when they need to, it is important
to consider the toilet environment and to check whether children have
open access to toilets. Providing high quality, well-maintained toilets
is also linked to the National Healthy School Standard programme, particularly
its emotional health and wellbeing theme, and the Healthy Living Blueprint.
Read more about Healthy Schools. Some
of the following considerations go beyond simply keeping facilities clean
and in good condition; they also question aspects of privacy and toilet-use
policy that are necessary to make school toilets a healthy and pleasant
environment for pupils:
- Can pupils go to the toilet when they need to?
- Is there a widely-communicated school policy for permission to go
during lessons? Are staff adhering to it?
- Are pupils able to go to the toilet during class time in privacy (when
others are not around) – and without adverse comment when they
leave and return to class?
- Are pupils free of pressure to go to the toilet quickly?
- Are the toilets unlocked at all times?
- Do pupils feel comfortable about going to the toilet?
- Is the toilet environment relaxed and welcoming?
- Can pupils use the toilet without undue queuing?
- Are the toilets clean?
- Are they well-lit and a comfortable temperature?
- Is there adequate ventilation?
- Air fresheners?
- Are door/partition gaps sufficiently high/low so others can’t
- Do all the cubicles have working locks?
- Are the locks secure? (so that others can’t easily undo the
locks from the outside)
- Do the locks unlock easily from the inside?
- Do pupils feel safe and secure?
- Are there enough cubicles in the boys’ toilets?
- Do the urinals offer individual screening for privacy so that boys
- Are the toilets properly maintained with working facilities?
- Are the toilets free of vandalism?
- Is there a plentiful supply of toilet paper in each toilet cubicle?
- Is the paper of reasonable quality, absorbent and soft?
- Are groups discouraged from hanging out in the toilets during breaks?
- Is action taken to prevent smoking in the toilets? (e.g. smoke alarms)
- Is intimidating behaviour or bullying discouraged?
- Are the washrooms clean? Promptly repaired and maintained?
- Is there hot and cold running water?
- Is there soap at all washbasins?
- Paper towels or hand dyers (that work properly)?
- Is there sufficient time to go to the toilet and wash hands properly?
- Are the toilets suitable for all users, including pupils with special
The need for toilet facilities and toilet breaks is not limited
to the classroom. Many sporting facilities are not close to toilets, washrooms
or drinking water provision. Pupils either have to hang on or don’t
drink enough. Both are unhealthy practices and discourage willing participation
Some adults may belittle the problems of pupils’ toilets, including
the problem of children not being allowed to go to the toilet when they
need to, as trivial, the norm, and just a rite of passage. However, for
children who have no choice but to spend at least half of every weekday
in school until the age of 16 or more, we now realise that the impact
on their physical and psychological health can be serious and far-reaching.
A significant proportion of all childhood urinary and bowel problems are
caused by unhealthy toileting patterns practised in schools.
School Toilet Policy
A growing number of schools are establishing a written School Toilet
Policy. A policy enables a school to develop and maintain a shared philosophy
and co-ordinated approach to their school toilets and when pupils are
allowed to use them. A written school toilet policy is a powerful indication
to children and parents that teachers value and respect the welfare of
their pupils. You can see an example school toilet policy on the school
toilet policy page.
Privacy is a major issue for school children of all ages:
- Open access: The only time some children feel comfortable
about going to the toilet is during class time, in privacy, when others
are not around.
- Adequate locks: locks on all cubicle doors, locks
that are easy to operate from the inside, locks that other pupils cannot
open easily from the outside. Ones which can be opened with a key are
suitable, so that the door can be opened if a pupil gets into difficulties
in the cubicle. The storage location of the key needs to be carefully
considered if toilets are not close to where staff can be quickly found.
- Adequate door/partition height: high enough so that
others cannot look over, even if standing on an adjacent toilet seat.
- Adequate door/partition length: low enough so that
others can’t look under.
- No gaps in doors/partitions: doors and partitions
need to be fitted so that there are no gaps.
- Adequate toilet cubicles for boys: boys need a higher
number of toilet cubicles than are usually provided. (At least an equal
ratio of toilet cubicles to urinals).
- Urinals: urinals should be individually partitioned
for privacy and not visible from an open door. “Trough”
urinals should be avoided.
- Sanitary facilities for girls: one girl in 8 starts
her periods at primary school. Sanitary machines need to be placed in
all age appropriate girls’ toilets (Year 3 or age 8 and over)
where sanitary towels/tampons can be obtained unobtrusively without
having to ask an adult. Disposal facilities should be available within
all age-appropriate individual cubicles.
Access, security and supervision
Toilets are frequently located in large, anonymous toilet blocks,
away from classrooms and staff, increasing feelings of insecurity felt
by children, making supervision difficult and leaving the toilets open
to bullying and vandalism. Ideally toilets should be attached to each
classroom or pair/cluster of classrooms, offering easy accessibility and
surveillance, reducing the institutional feel of the toilets while encouraging
feelings of ownership. Small group toilets are also needed next to changing
rooms, dining halls, playgrounds etc.
Some pupils with learning difficulties might have problems finding the
toilets if they are far from the classrooms. Other pupils with special
needs may also find it hard to get to a far-away toilet, especially those
with limited mobility. Those with continence problems could find it hard
to get to a toilet in time if the toilets are far away, and this can contribute
Supervision of toilets is a contentious issue, with some staff arguing
that it is not their role to go into pupils’ toilets. However, if
staff do not go into the toilets then these can deteriorate into an adult-free
zone where intimidation, bullying and vandalism can occur.
CCTV cameras are best used when other options have failed. Some
schools have placed CCTV cameras at the entrance to the toilets or on
the 'circulation areas' of the toilets or washrooms where there is no
monitoring of the toilet cubicles or urinals. Their aim is to make toilets
a safer environment for pupils and to prevent anti-social behaviour such
as smoking, vandalism and graffiti. They can allow schools to keep toilets
open at times when they would previously have been locked. CCTV cameras
are useful in some schools but, as they are potentially a contentious
issue, are best discussed widely and conspicuously with the whole school
before their introduction.
Poor toilet facilities and standards will undoubtedly attract poor
behaviour. Toilets deteriorate over time. The worse they are, the less
pupils look after them and so they go downhill even quicker. Toilets need
to be well maintained, promptly repaired and cleaned adequately (which
in most schools will mean at least twice a day) and then pupils need to
be encouraged to take responsibility for and ownership of them in order
to keep them in a reasonable state. Peer pressure may be more successful
than staff pressure as pupils are more likely to listen to each other
than to teachers. Pupils can use the School Council, registration, assemblies
and PSHE or Citizenship lessons to get the message across.
The pupils’ section of this website has
a page on making visits easier which encourages
pupils to act responsibly in the toilets. Teachers can assist pupils in
drawing up their own code of conduct – it is better if it comes
from the pupils themselves. Discussions can include respecting each other’s
privacy, flushing the toilets, not hanging around in the toilets, and
Going during lesson time
Many schools impose restrictions on the use of school toilets during
lessons. Some ban visits outright, while others make it clear to pupils
that they are expected to go at breaks only (which may mean opportunities
to go are restricted to just twice a day). Even where the school policy
is to allow access during lessons, pupils report that this frequently
depends on the whim of the teacher and whether other pupils have already
been allowed to go. Some pupils have simply learnt to no longer ask. Many
children do not go to the toilet as often as they should at school, and
some avoid going altogether. This has an adverse effect on their wellbeing,
and contributes to bladder and bowel problems.
While teachers obviously need to keep track of their pupils, this should
be done unobtrusively. Wearing a toilet pass or other identifiable pass
is not dignified. If a member of staff sees a student in the corridor
or outside during lesson time, it will usually be obvious if they're messing
about or if they are on their way to or from a genuine toilet visit.
Many schools with an open toilet policy find that children do not abuse
the right but appreciate and respect being treated with consideration.
A few pupils may try to skip some lesson time and there may be fears that
a particularly disaffected minority may cause damage. A blanket ban on
going to the toilets during lessons is a harmful restriction for the vast
majority, however, who are rarely, if ever, a cause for anxiety.
A ban can also:
- serve to alienate the 'law-abiding' majority
- be counter-productive: if a child needs to go to the toilet their
concentration is going to be on their uncomfortable bladder and bowels
and not on the lesson
- become a potential source of resentment that sours pupil-teacher relations
and encourages wilful damage
"All too often, the measures introduced to control or penalise
the few, punish or disadvantage the many."
Tom Wylie Chief Executive - The National Youth
The website www.childadvocate.org
has the following suggestions:
- Find positive ways of allowing pupils to take care of their needs,
such as allowing children to quietly sign in and out of class to use
- Understand that it is natural for some adults to want to take breaks
from a setting or task, or to escape a situation when anxious. Children
have this need as well.
- Teachers have a role of ‘in loco parentis’. This means
you need to cater for the physical needs and welfare of the children
in your care.
Restricting access during breaks, or to certain times during breaks,
is practised in some schools (for example, where indoor toilets are not
directly accessible from the playground and where supervision is deemed
necessary). This appears to be largely for the convenience of staff –
supervising pupils for perhaps only five minutes as opposed to twenty
– but is totally unfeasible and inappropriate for pupils. They are
highly unlikely to be able to use the toilets in such a limited timescale.
Providing free and unlimited use of the toilets during breaks and lunchtime
must be a basic priority for all schools. Monitoring the toilets could
be included in the staff’s supervision rota.
If pupils are forced to spend breaks outside, even when it’s very
cold, they will naturally want to escape and the toilets provide a place
to congregate. Schools can tackle this by providing an alternative environment
for part of or all of break times, such as dining or sports halls. These
can be used by pupils who do not want to be out in the cold, or those
who find the playground stressful. Several designers in the Building Schools
for the Future Exemplar Designs (DfES 2004) have recognized the need to
provide such areas.
Types of provision
When designing and refurbishing toilets, several types of toilet
provision should be provided for easy access throughout the school day:
- Toilets attached to each classroom or cluster of classrooms - so that
all pupils can access the toilets during lessons
- Small groups of toilets accessible from the playground within the
school buildings – so that pupils are not denied free access during
- Small groups of toilets adjacent to sports areas dining halls, playgrounds
and sports areas and additional toilets accessible from sports and recreation
fields, such as purpose built toilets or toilet pods
Adjusting the school day to suit pupils’
Where toilets are not attached to classrooms, in order to accommodate
adequate access to toilets schools may need to adjust the school day (e.g.
toilet breaks available at regular 45-60 minute intervals) and school
policy (allowing pupils to go when they need to). Having regular and frequent
enough toilet breaks will cut down on the need for pupils to leave lessons.
It should be recognized, however, that there are some pupils who only
feel comfortable going to the toilet in privacy when others are not around.
Many pupils with bladder and bowel problems may only have a short warning
of the need to go and may need to go more frequently.
Responsibility for pupils’ toilets
It can be difficult to ensure suitable standards are maintained
in pupil toilets especially if they are showing their age and are prone
to vandalism. It is, however, very important that pupils’ toilets
are pleasant, hygienic, safe and freely available to pupils. Sometimes
it is just a case of no one person or group taking clear responsibility
for the toilets, which results in their neglect. Contract cleaners may
be under pressure to clean schools quickly and site managers may put maintaining
the toilets low on their list of priorities. Staff and governors may not
actually go inside the toilets.
In order to encourage pupils to take care of the toilets, involving the
pupils through bodies such as the School Council is advisable. But no
pupil is going to want to take care of dirty, smelly, poorly maintained
toilets. High costs can be involved in renovating or building new toilets
but in the short-term, just maintaining, repairing and cleaning the toilets
promptly and to a higher standard can do wonders for morale and behaviour,
as well as low-budget short-term solutions such as fresh paint, colourful
murals, funky toilet seats and pot plants – created with the help
of working parties of pupils and parents.
Schools can normally eradicate bad smells with a programme of proper
regular cleaning (toilets cleaned at least twice a day), improved ventilation
and air fresheners. Occasionally, however, virtually everything has been
tried to make the toilets less odorous but with little success. The smell
is often worse in older schools, where it may be due to a combination
of factors including many years of (urine) absorption, older and more
porous building materials and surfaces, and limited ventilation. A partial
or full refurbishment may be the only long-term solution. There are companies
which produce products aimed at eradicating deeply ingrained smells. If
you have found an effective way of making the loos smell nicer, please
let us know.
Expected to gain control: too much too soon
Many nurseries will only accept children who are toilet trained
– creating the impression that all children should be clean and
dry by the age of the age of 3 years. In fact, between 20 and 30% of children
will still be wetting or soiling at this age, usually because the child
isn’t ready to gain control.
Entry into school and nursery can lead to difficulties. Children who
are happy to use the toilet at home may be less keen when faced with those
Toilets are unsuitable venues for any sort of drinking water provision.
Although toilet areas usually have available water supplies, they have
nothing to make them a hygienic, safe or appealing venue for drinking.
Existing water facilities should be relocated or replaced completely elsewhere.
New ones should not be put in the toilet area.
Increased availability of water and encouragement to drink regularly
are now widespread in schools across the UK. The provision of free, fresh
drinking water throughout the school day, sited away from toilet areas,
is now included in many government national standards and guidelines.
- Ofsted inspections (September 2005)
- Nutritional standards for school lunches (DfES September 2006)
- Standards for all school food other than lunches (DfES from September
- New Healthy Schools Programme. A Guide for Schools (DH 2005)
- New Healthy Schools Programme. A short guide for parents and carers
- Food in Schools Water Provision Project (DfES/DH April 2005)
- Healthy Living Blueprint (DfES September 2004)
- Building Bulletin 87 Guidelines for Environmental Design in Schools
(DfES 2nd edition May 2003)
- BREEAM Schools Manual HW16
To see the above in more detail, look at the factsheet The
law on drinking water provision for pupils in comparison with legislation
A healthier fluid intake may increase the need for toilet visits initially,
but as good drinking habits are developed, this need usually normalizes
within a few weeks.
Print off a factsheet with
this information (it will open in a new window)
For further information on water in schools visit www.wateriscoolinschool.org.uk.
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