Why it's Important
Read about the problems some pupils continue to face, the effects of these problems and the human rights for children that the UK is signed up to. You can also see the results of surveys on school toilets, including our latest in 2010.
Toilets are vital. They might be the smallest rooms in the school but they can have one of the biggest impacts on pupil health, education and happiness.
Conditions for Healthy Learning
Access to minimum standard toilet facilities and drinking water in school are crucial to the health and well being of all children and young people.
For children and young people to stay healthy, they need to drink water regularly during the day and use the toilet as and when they need to in order to encourage full elimination. During term time, time spent at school is the bulk of any child’s day so how much they drink and how often they go to the toilet are important. The extension of the school day and breakfast clubs make this even more critical.
Many adults don’t realise how bad some school toilets sill are. Problems pupils continue to experience include:
- Dirty, smelly toilets
- Broken or missing seats, doors and toilet roll holders
- No or not enough toilet paper, soap or hand drying facilities
- Lack of privacy – doors that don’t lock, cubicles that can be peered over or under easily, urinals that can be viewed from outside the toilet area
- Bullies and/or smokers hanging out in the toilets
- Graffiti or vandalism
- Restricted access to toilets – not allowed to go or not enough time
allowed to go
- Toilets locked to pupils
- Toilets inconveniently located, including those with special needs
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Alleviate and prevent continence problems
A survey of nurses and incontinence specialists in the Nursing Times (May, 2010) found that all believed that school toilets are a contributing factor to incontinence in children.
In excess of one in 12 (about 750,000) five to 16 year olds in the UK suffer from the stigma of incontinence - wetting and soiling (the involuntary escape or leakage of faeces due to long-term constipation). Children often feel great shame and stress, feel isolated, and are bullied at school.
A lot of these problems could be avoided, alleviated or eradicated with improved school toilet facilities and being allowed to use the toilet when they need to. Encouraging drinking water during the day helps too.
Pupils with special needs
Having special needs doesn’t just mean needing wheelchair access. Some pupils suffer from medical conditions which mean they need more privacy; clean, appropriately equipped and well stocked toilets; access without delay; and extra time for the toilet.
For some health conditions (such as Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative Colitis, IBS, cystic fibrosis and incontinence) unrestricted access to school toilets of a good standard can make the difference between being able to attend school regularly and not being able to do so regularly, if at all.
Many pupils suffer from health problems relating to poor toilets and restricted access. Research from the UK Youth Parliament put this figure as high as 1 in 4 at secondary school level.
You don’t have to have continence problems or special needs to have an accident in class. As many parents and pupils (most in their teens)
testify on the Bog Standard website, not being allowed to use the toilets during lessons can cause humiliation for any pupil.
Wetting your pants in class can be perceived as a major disaster and has been highlighted in several studies of children’s feelings and fears as one of the most stressful events that could happen in their lives, rating third after losing a parent and going blind.
Many pupils, often adolescents, write to us because they have suffered humiliation by wetting or defaecating in their pants in class. This happens to children and young people through no fault of their own and without any abnormal bladder or bowel conditions. In each case their school has a policy of denying access during lessons and between lessons. The effects can be traumatic and trigger long-term phobias.
The impact on bladders and bowels
Poor toilets and hanging on can potentially affect all children. An over-stretched bladder, for example, increases the risk of leaks and infections, and a back flow of urine can also cause serious kidney and heart problems later in life. Continence clinics and physiotherapists see a lot of teachers who have become incontinent as a result of over-stretched bladders brought on by the constraints of not using the toilet when they need to. Children run the same risks and can suffer considerable discomfort and stress.
Restricting access to the toilet to set times can cause ‘going 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.
Reluctant or unable to use the toilets at school, pupils may cut back their fluid intake and unwittingly make the problem worse for themselves.
Not opening the bowels when we need to can lead to constipation, a common problem amongst school children, and which can be severe enough to need hospital treatment. A quarter of children attending the Sheffield Children’s Hospital paediatric outpatient clinics had problems relating to constipation.
Over a four-week period their research showed that over half of all the pupils avoided school toilets, with around a quarter prepared to use them only if desperate.
You can read more about the
effects of poor school toilets on children's bladders and bowels here.
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The impact on learning
Not allowing a child out of class to go to the toilet when they need to
is counter-productive: a child's attention will be focused on the discomfort
of their full bladder or bowel and not on the lesson. They may also be
under stress which will further reduce their ability to concentrate.
"Unless the basic physiological needs of the body are met, the brain
cannot function on higher tasks such as learning."
Abraham Maslow, Behavioural Psychologist: in Ewen, RB (1998).
An introduction to theories of personality (5th ed.). Mahwah,
NJ; publishers: Lawrence
Or, put more simply:
“How are we supposed to concentrate on the lesson if we are bursting
for the loo?”
Jenny, aged 13, in an email to Bog Standard campaign
Toilet areas in schools are the primary source of infection for pupils
and can spread infection from person to person. The confined environments
and high physical contact rate within schools, as well as with the relatively
immature immune systems of children, can result in viruses taking hold
and spreading rapidly throughout the school and beyond. A substantial
percentage of school absenteeism among children and young people is related
to transmissible infection. Adequate cleaning of toilets and washrooms
and good hand hygiene facilities are central to preventing the spread
of infection. Infection can range from colds and flu to E.coli outbreaks.
The wider impact
The effects of substandard toilets and restrictions on toilet visits don’t
stop at health and welfare. They also affect pupils’ willingness
to learn, their behaviour, morale and attendance levels. They may also
be linked to the development of phobias and deviant behaviour.
Dignity and respect
The Children’s Commissioner for Wales, speaking to BBC Wales in
October 2010, hoped his previous annual report would be the last time
he would have to speak out about the state of school toilets. The Commissioner
felt he was beginning to "sound like a broken record" on the
subject but pupils were still raising the issue, which was a matter of
dignity and respect as well as health and hygiene.
“It’s really not good enough that we find ourselves in 2010
where children are forced to use toilets with no seats or doors on the
cubicles, with inadequate washing facilities, and feel so strongly about
it that they avoid using the toilet during the school day. It’s
about dignity and respect. Surely, a fair society for children would show
more respect… In a time of financial uncertainty we should be focusing
efforts and budgets on getting the basics right for children. …
Whilst difficult (financial) decisions need to be made within schools
priority must now be given to putting (toilets) right so that children
don’t continue to have dignity and respect denied them.”
Keith Towler, Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Third Annual
Report, October, 2010
Employees have the right, in law, to a clean, private toilet with hot
and cold running water, and soap. Children have no such law to protect
However, under article 5 of the Human Rights Declaration:
"No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading
treatment or punishment."
The following articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,
that the UK is signed up to, have particular relevance to the issues relating
to pupils' toilets.
"State parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities
responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform to the
standards established by the competent authorities."
"Children have the right to express their opinions freely and to
have their opinions taken into account in any matter or procedure facing
"Children have the right to good quality health care and clean water,
nutritious food and a clean environment so that they stay healthy."
Bog Standard believes that not allowing children unrestricted access to
a private, well-maintained toilet is an infringement of these rights.
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Look at the results of surveys into
Find out more about the health
problems caused by school toilets
Read what pupils tell us
Read what adults tell us
Find out what I can do to help