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title - school toilets

no time to read all this? here's an executive summary pdf

the design of school toilets has typically not been good - for a complex set of reasons. Typically, children are reluctant to use them; when they are used, they are often the centre of behaviour and discipline problems. Prominent amongst the consequences are health problems behaviour problems and dehydration problems. Dehydrated children work less well. Ill children stay away, bullied children carry the pain for life.

Put simply, the design of school toilets is hurting school performance badly, is damaging children yet is compafratively simple to improve. Many schools have embarked on a journey towards better toilets - on these pages are a distillation of some of their effective and tested ingredients. As ever, iyt's complex but none of this is difficult. You will need to vary these suggestions, as ever, to produce your own local recipe.


the problem | COVID | designs | learner voice

the problem: let's start with some evidence - there are a host of surveys all reaching the same conclusion: many children, especially of secondary age, try to avoid using their school toilets - they try not to use them on a daily basis. Alarmingly, many have simply never defecated in a secondary school toilet and a significantly large number have not urinated either. All of which is clearly a huge concern and a design failure. For specific reports, see recently for example:

Dr Val Curtis, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine's Hygiene Centre, led a small (300 secondary students, 150 primary) survey, which was widely reported, found school toilets to be "'dirty and inadequate" with nearly 40% of secondary school girls reporting ''holding it in'' so they didn't have to go to the toilet.

Two more extensive (4,355 students) School Hygiene Reports by Metsä Tissue (who have a vested interest, obviously) were carried out a in a total of seven European countries. The first study was made in Sweden, Norway and Denmark during the 2007, and the second one in UK, Germany, Poland and Finland in 2008. Both researches revealed that school children suffer effectively from a toilet phobia as a consequence of their poor toilets. Only only 34% of the school children used the school toilet daily.

Toilet avoidance, on a common sense level would be expected to result in poor concentration, distraction. But physiologically things are worse with consequences reaching through to damaged kidneys and urinary track infections. Published research by Lundblad and Hellström from Göteborg University, in the Journal of School Health found perceptions of school toilets as a cause for irregular toilet habits among schoolchildren aged 6 to 16 years. In this 2005 study children aged 13 to 16 years had the most negative perceptions. Twenty-five percent (overall 16%) of older children reported never using the school toilet to urinate, and 80% (overall 63%) never used it to defecate. This is shocking data. I have asked a lot of children, often in large groups. Their responses confirmed for me what the data was telling us, as did my teachers'-common sense.

I could add a whole section here on dehydration and concentration - but one reference sums up what the others all say unequivocally: in its report Drinking In Schools, the Expert Group on Hydration in 2006 said simply that without adequate hydration at school, a child is at risk of experiencing headaches, lack of concentration and digestive problems. This could potentially have a devastating effect on quality of study and performance as well as adversely effecting health, behaviour and general wellbeing. Other problems widely reported by others include a slightly swollen tongue, one reason perhaps why so many teenagers seem less attentive and less willing to make a spoken contribution in the afternoon.

There are fewer items of researched evidence about school toilets and discipline - but the combined experience and wisdom of pretty well every teacher in the UK and beyond, confirms the children's clear feedback, whenever they are asked, that the school toilet is too often a place for bad behaviours. Sometimes this leads to schools losing the plot - severely limiting the time when children might go, thus compounding all the health and concentration problems above. I don't know the school, but this report in Australia's The Age newspaper seems certainly indicative of a fair degree of plot-losing, if the report of a school's enforcement of frankly bizarre school toilet rules (apparently, all children must go to the toilet together?) is accurate (which it hopefully isn't).

In essence, the traditional school toilet is a haven for the bully, or for the ne'er-do-well; it offers no privacy, precious little hygiene, no sense of respect for the student., Survey after survey report no soap at all; if there is paper it is likely as not dumped in the bowl - and washbasins are in the public area, not the privacy of the cubicle. If you need to clean up after a problem, you won't want to be doing that is an open public space.

The school's student toilets are too rarely visited by staff and are designed with a special bullying-antechamber (!) between the school and the cubicles which appears to exist uniquely to make the toilets even worse. Some school design regulations even prescribe this awful antechamber.

Any privacy is effectively non existent - look at the gap between floor and wall in this (new!) US school toilet. The base of the cubicle wall is higher than the seat!:

US toilet stalls

Every pant and knicker would be widely displayed and in a world where, whatever the school regime, many children are carrying a smart phone with camera, no child would safely defecate or urinate on this bowl. No child.

Similarly doors that have huge gaps leave every user exposed - as this (also new!) one does:

toilet door with huge gap (that is my adult hand, for scale)

It does depress me that something with such a profound effect on school performance, that is so well documented as impactful, and so well reported as such by the students, can continue to be so badly implemented. This is, I think, indicative of a problem we face in moving schools into the 3rd millennium - too much of what happens only happens because "we have always done it that way". But whereas new pedagogy might take a bit of getting your head around, toilet design is pretty binary - good enough or damagingly awful.

I don't believe these bad toilets were designed by perverts, or that schools sought ways to make their children's performance worse, but the effect would be just the same if they had. We can surely do better.

Luckily a very large number of schools have come to the same conclusion, and made significant strides forward in school toilet design - sometimes by simple makeovers, sometimes by better design at the new school stage, often as starting project to show they are taking Learner Voice seriously...

...and finally the issue of transgender students and staff does mean that gender specific toilets are less than helpful in developing an enlightened and supportive approach. See this report from the Independent newspaper for example (and thanks Kristin for the link)

COVID and pandemics

Much of the danger of COVID infection comes from aerosol plumes of tiny droplets which then carry infection, certainly aerosol infection is more problematice than simple surface contact infection.

A flushed toilet without a lid produces a droplet plume (these are tiny dropets, you don't see them) travelling about 5 metres distance.

Onviously there are limited solutions to this problem: children using the toilets one at a time with a wait period between visits would be hoplessly impractical. Or, if kids were fully masked when using the toilets - but how would you ensure that? Really the only practical solution is to add lids to all the toilets AND explain to the kids why it is impartant to close lids before flushing.

If you mention that in their homes flushing a toilet in the bathroom without the lid down will almost cettainly result in faecal matter on their toothbrushes,... then that information is usually retained in their minds...!!

So how might designs be improved?

There are some fundamental 3rd millennium improvements, all tried and tested of course:

washbasins in the cubicles. If the hand basins are outside of the cubicles, children can only wash their hands in them - for obvious privacy reasons. Accidents, or other personal hygiene issues, cannot be resolved at a public basin - so at least some basins need to be inside cubicles - as in these delightful toilet "pods" in Jesmond Gardens School in Hartleypool:

toilet pods

toilet pods

and what school designers call "airline toilets" can be safely unisex, can be used by teachers and children, have absolute privacy (some regulations specifiy a special key so that kids locking themsleves in (eg a suicide attempt) can be reached quickly. But this does not need to be at the expense of privacy.

a good toilet

or in this example from Tasmania - all the basins are all out of sight in cubicles, any litle accidents can be sorted in privacy - note that the doors fit the cubicle frames too:

toilets with integral wash basins

Note also that because regulations insisted on an extra door between the cubicles and the school, the sensible use of a glass door prevents the creation of those hideous secretive bullying antechambers. Other schools simply knock out this front wall and create what have become known as lay-by toilets - I think Monkseaton School coined this phrase originally, but the idea is a cheap improvement and has been much copied. The three sided open space that results can stand any amount of mirroring and bling - I've even seen Hollywood style light bulbs around mirrors.

Sometimes I get told that toilets are always vandalised. Schools who redesign their toilets don't report that - there is a simple message about respect here that doesn't need expanding does it?

mixed sex toilets really do work - the girls and boys are a civilizing influence on each other. Obviously boys can't have troughs or wall mounted urinals unless they are enclosed, but many schools now mix their genders as you see below. Left image is secondary (Knowsley, England), centre is primary (Cayman Isles) and the right hand image is a UK school too.

In one school, after a few very vocal parents objected to mixed loos (they set up a Facebook group against the "depravity" of shared toilets!) the imaginative school immediately responded by saying boys were to the left and girls to the right (!!!) but all of course sharing the same space (the parents were then happy, apparently!):

3 unisex school toilets

and below is a simple makeover of an existing school toilet - open access to the area, no "troughs" for boys, all cubicles. Civilised and like home or hotels:

unisex school toilet conversion

Not only do I now see a lot of unisex toilets in schools, but these days I also see an encouraging number of toilets shared by staff, students and visitors. This really does seem to civilise the whole area.

door that fit - walls that reach fully to the floor and ceiling. This is covered above, but no gaps please - as you see illustrated in all the good practice shown above - a really simple improvement. A simple test - in the dark light a torch / lantern / phone inside the cubicle; if you see light from outside, the gaps need addressing.

lids on toilets. Adding lids to toilets - the sort you need have a slight overlap to the toilet beneath - simply flat lids don't really reduce the infectious aerosoil plume. Really imprtant change. See above

simple solutions for boys' poor aim. It is hideous to report, but the average male "misses" the toilet by some 1.5 litres per year (and that is the average remember!). This presents quite a design challenge, but there are many simple solutions. In continental Europe an "aiming spot" on the porcelain helps a lot (typically it is the image of a fly) - and obviously ceramic or other easy mop floors help. Usually, boys are embarrassed by their awful aim, so a floor mop to hand is often used happily by boys if there is privacy in the cubicle.

Jesmond Gardens (see images above) like so many these days is a shoes-off school. Their toilet pods have a pair of Croc shoes outside each cubicle door - socks and urine do not go well together but this loan-shoe solution works just fine and the children are very comfortable with it.

crocs outside loo

create toilets where the children are rather than mass industrial scale toilets some distance away, just for break times. Modern plumbing offers Macerator Toilets which (sorry if this is a bit graphic) macerate all the lumps and tissue so that it will flow pumped down a small-bore pipe. Thus these toilets can be installed anywhere, without expensive and extensive groundwork for the exit pipes usually connected to the U bend in a conventional toilet.

In simple terms, if the students have to say "My I go to the toilet please?" then those toilets are too far away. Ideally they would ask "May I use the toilet please?" which suggests that the toilets are nearby.

Since many classrooms have stockrooms or cupboards at the back, these might easily be converted into a class toilet - as we see below left (did this in the Caribbean). We also included toilets inside in our Classroom of the Future design for the Ingenium (below, right) two of which we built in Richmond on Thames, opening in 2004:

classroom toilet the ingenium 2004

The advantages of classroom toilets are considerable, but amount to this:

music: cue interesting debate about aural ambience in schools - and much convincing research, but this is more straightforward - children like music, they say that it masks "unfortunate sounds" and it just seems to be profoundly civilizing. It is certainly a very clear signifier of change - a sign that the school is rethinking - and that alone is worth the tiny investment. You will suffer staff-room jokes about Handel's Water Music (et al), but trust me, it is worth it!

Work with the cleaners: so many toilets are designed / redesigned in a way that makes them really difficult to clean, or maintain. Working with your cleaners to get the ideal radius at the bottom of the walls, the right gap behind the bowls, the simplest surfaces behind the sinks all makes good sense. Which is why smart schools do it. But don't be swayed if they ask for cubicle walls that don't go down to the floor. Expain why that can never be right...

Another post pandemic thought is that since COVID many school cleaning regimes use industrial strength cleaning materials - the resultant high TVOCs (the total volatile organic compounds) are significantly damaging to cognitive performance. Maybe ease back on those chemicals?

listen to the Learners' Voice:

I write elsewhere in detail about this - but suffice to say here simply that when children are asked about their school, improving the toilets is always high on their wish list, and we all know that.

When we reel off the rhetoric of learner-voice it is as well to remember that their voice has been saying loud and clear, for decades, "sort out the minging toilets please!" and, by and large, it has been ignored. This leads to cynicism and a reluctance to believe anyone will listen to anything they care about.

A school toilet makeover, with the students (don't just ask them, get them to research other good school toilets... - send them to this page, etc) really shows that you have listened.

Here is the inimicable Vic Goddard writing about the process and impact of better school toilets and the student involvement in that process, in Passmores Academy... you will see it confirms much of the above.

So finally: engagement, concentration, contribution, improved discipline, fewer absences, better learning outcomes, raised test scores, happier children... what is not to like about sorting out the toilets? Oh, and you get better toilets too!

the problem | designs | learner voice

the design of school toilets

this page last updated for spellings: Tuesday, February 14, 2023 2:31 PM
© September, 2006