Education Quandary

'I teach at a rural primary school and one boy in my class smells terrible. I've dropped hints with no success, and am dreading next term's warm weather' Help!''

Hilary Wilce
Wednesday 10 July 2013 04:49

Hilary's advice

You are in a very awkward position. Say nothing and the boy will continue to be bullied and excluded, and you and the rest of the class will continue to suffer; say something and there's no guarantee that it will have the desired effect, or that it won't cause him acute embarrassment and distress.

But it isn't fair on anyone to ignore it. So first of all, decide why you think he's so pongy. Is this a new problem, or one that has been getting steadily worse? And what do you think is behind it? If you feel sure it's a straightforward question of not enough washing, tackle it directly. Either talk to the boy himself, or to his parents - the choice will depend on his age and on what you know of his family circumstances. There are lots of ways of making it tactful. You can talk about how everyone "as they grow up" has to start to be more careful about washing and using deodorant, and about how hot the classroom gets, which makes everyone sweaty, and how important it is, therefore, that you all try to keep smelling OK for each other.

If, though, you feel there is something more worrying behind this, you must consult your school head. Poor hygiene can indicate family poverty, homelessness, mental-health problems or abuse. This is particularly true if the boy also seems neglected. Does he have clothes which are the wrong size or inappropriate for the weather? Ingrained dirt on his skin? Matted and unwashed hair? Or layers of stains on his sweatshirt? And what about his behaviour? Is there anything troubling there? If so, watch him carefully and share all your concerns, so appropriate steps can be taken.

Above all, bear in mind it is not his fault that he is dirty or unwashed. Choose your words carefully and be scrupulous in avoiding blame. If it helps, remember BO can happen to anyone - 46 per cent of 2,000 teenagers polled by Bliss magazine last summer said that unpleasant body odours were a common trait of teachers!

Readers' advice

Sometimes odours can indicate medical problems such as liver and kidney disease. Some metabolic conditions mean people either smell like tomcats or rotten fish. They are rare, but you should know they exist.
Name and address withheld

One child at a school near us was found not to be in the habit of using toilet paper after defecating, as seen by damp stains on the back of his trousers. He came from a relatively poor household which did not purchase toilet paper. If the origin of the smell is poor toileting, the school nurse could encourage better hygiene, eg front to back wiping of the perineal area, perhaps alongside the usual handwashing promotion, which always takes place in primary schools.
Caroline McCormack, Liverpool

I grew up in a back-to-back terraced house with no bathroom, an outside toilet and no washing machine. Yet me and my sisters and our home were spotlessly clean. Why? Because my mother made it so. This little boy is dirty because his parents have got their priorities wrong.

Forget political correctness and be blunt. What they are doing to their little boy is wrong. He is being ostracised and no doubt bullied because he smells. His parents need to be told that he has a right to be washed every day and wear clean clothes.

They must be made to understand that damage will be done to him if he spends years as the "smelly" child in the class. And they have a duty not to let that happen.
Andrea Clyndes, Lancashire

Next week's quandary

I am wondering about becoming a teacher, but am not sure whether I would want to teach primary or secondary pupils, or what subject I would be equipped to teach because my degree is in philosophy, which does not equate to anything on the national curriculum. I also don't have GCSE maths. Would that stop me from getting on a postgraduate training course?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 11 April, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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