Cleaning up the mess

School lavatories are too often smelly, covered in graffiti and bad for children's health. But a new campaign aims to transform them into clean, safe havens for pupils. Steve McCormack reports
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The Independent Online

Most people have vivid recollections of their school lavatories. Even those who look back on their schooldays with affection, remember lavatories with poor facilities, bad hygiene, and an often threatening atmosphere.

Most people have vivid recollections of their school lavatories. Even those who look back on their schooldays with affection, remember lavatories with poor facilities, bad hygiene, and an often threatening atmosphere.

It appears that not much has changed. A new survey into the state of school toilets across Britain paints a shocking picture of lavatories that no one would be happy using. In too many schools, pupils are using badly maintained and poorly supervised loos. They thereby run the risk of infection or bullying. Some choose not to use the school lavatories as a result, which can lead to constipation and other health problems. A new pressure group, pithily titled Bog Standard, is being launched next week to raise awareness of the damage, to children's health and education, caused by poor school loos. It is campaigning for immediate improvements across the country. The campaign is driven, more than anything, by the views of pupils themselves.

"Our school toilets are a complete disgrace," says Anneka, 14, from Sheffield, one of the many students who responded to a national e-mail survey. Missing locks, faulty taps, dirty mirrors and a lack of lavatory paper are just some of the things that Anneka complains about. "I walk in, look around then back straight out," she says. "I'd rather wait six hours till I get home!"

There's evidence, too, that loos get colonised by a school's rough elements. Nicola, 14, from Manchester, says that she dreaded going to the lavatories. "They're covered in graffiti, they stink and the smokers put their cigarettes down the toilet."

On the strength of this anecdotal evidence, Bog Standard sought more scientific backing for its campaign. School nurses were asked to look into conditions in more than 900 schools across the country. Their reports confirmed the suspicions. Among the worst findings: 14 per cent of secondary schools had no seats in pupils' loos; of those with seats, 35 percent were broken or insecurely fitted; 25 per cent of all schools had lavatory doors without locks; and 72 per cent had doors which allowed other pupils to peer over the top or under the bottom. In addition, there were widespread instances of dirty floors, poor ventilation (and we all know what that means) and lack of loo paper, soap or hand towels.

The nurses also discovered a surprising degree of ignorance among head teachers. "Some heads admitted that they had never stepped inside the lavatories before this survey," explains Nickie Brander, campaign organiser for Bog Standard.

To be launched officially at the House of Commons next Wednesday, the campaign has emerged from existing organisations concerned with children's well-being. At the centre is a body called Education and Resources for Improving Childhood Continence (ERIC), which has already campaigned successfully for more drinking-water fountains in schools. Also involved is School Councils UK, an umbrella organisation for pupil representative bodies, the Community Practitioners' and Health Visitors Association, the British Toilet Association and MPs from the three main parties. Sponsorship is provided by Domestos.

Central to the message is the argument that poor school loos have a detrimental impact on health and learning. At the mild end of these effects, are children who deliberately steer clear of unpleasant lavatories. They have trouble concentrating in lessons.

In severe cases, though, long-term problems can develop. Research at Sheffield Children's Hospital shows a clear link between children with constipation and pupils avoiding school lavatories. Poor hygiene can also lead to infection, which can, in turn spread, if washing facilities are not up to scratch.

Kate, 15, described "disgusting conditions" in the loos at her South London comprehensive. "They're never cleaned, there's always water on the floor, never any soap and you can't sit on the seats."

A parallel, and no less worrying concern, centres on the potential for school loos to breed an intimidating atmosphere."In poor toilets, which are also inadequately supervised, there's a tendency for the gang culture to take over," explains Brander. "Too many schools are just not on top of this, and, on a daily basis, children are being made to feel uncomfortable by the rough element and, at the extreme, lured into situations where bullying takes place."

But it doesn't have to be like this. Bramhall High School in Stockport, a mixed comprehensive with 1,500 students, has taken a controversial and dramatic step to reduce the likelihood of intimidating behaviour: it has introduced mixed toilets.

A wall separating the girls' and boys' loos in one block was knocked down, and rows of new cubicles, with full height doors, installed. The doors from the toilet area to the corridor are kept open all the time. The result is a busy atmosphere with no room or space for anyone to congregate.

"It has made it a much safer place," says the head teacher, John Peckham. "There's much less smoking, bullying or nastiness." Elsewhere in the school there are still single sex loos, but Peckham is convinced that unisex is the way to go. "To my mind it's a model for all school toilets," says Peckham. "I would never build them any other way."

One of Bog Standard's aims is to persuade more and more heads and governors to take a careful look at the loos in their school, and ask themselves if they reflect the overall school ethos. It is a pertinent time to pose this question, because we are now in the middle of the open-evening season, when secondary schools in particular throw open their door to prospective parents.

Stuart McLeod, head of Southwell Primary School on the Portland peninsula in Dorset believes that the state of the lavatories is a good measure of the standards of care in a school. "Parents wondering where to send a child to school should have a look at the toilets before deciding," he says. "They reflect how a school treats its pupils."

After he was approached last year by some Year 6 girls complaining that the cubicle doors were too small and the locks were not working, he took action. Within a few months the boys' and girls' lavatories had been refurbished, and the pupils were asked for their views on their decoration. There are now keenly contested awards in the school for the best kept girls' and boys' lavatory. "I think if you show the children how much you value them, you get it back," he concludes.

At Bog Standard's launch next week, campaigners will call for all pupils to have access to decent loos, and for firmer statutory control to be exercised over the facilities. At present, employment legislation covers teachers' but not pupils' lavatories. And, surprisingly, Ofsted inspections do not cover conditions in pupils' loos. Bog Standard wants Ofsted's remit to be expanded.

In future, the hope is that, when Ofsted inspectors ask to go to the loo, they'll mean the pupils' loo, and they'll take their clipboard with them!