Research, in Australia and abroad, commonly finds students are dissatisfied with their toilet facilities, that students often avoid going to the toilet at school, and that expenditure on toilets is a low priority for many schools. Few governments and school administrations seem to make the connection between the provision of clean, pleasant and safe toilet facilities and children’s short and long-term physical and mental health and learning outcomes.
The existing research argues strongly for reforms, noting that the impact of poor design, maintenance and sanitation in school toilets causes a range of issues problems for students. These include:
- Sub-standard toilets (with inadequate cleaning schedules) are making children feel they are not respected or valued at school.
- Poor sanitation, along wth restricted access, is creating health problems.
- The poor condition of school toilets is deterring children from drinking sufficient water during the day (to avoid having to urinate). The associated dehydration is impacting on concentration and learning.
- School toilets are being used as a site for hiding out, crying, self-harm and suicide.
- Lack of privacy in school bathrooms is associated with misbehaviour.
In 2010, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK surveyed 457 children:
- “More than a third (36%) said their toilets were never clean, with 42% saying soap was only available sometimes, and almost a fifth (19%) said there was never any soap” (BBC Health, 2010).
- One in four secondary pupils thought their school toilets were ‘disgusting’ (Kirby, 2010).
- 38% of secondary school girls reported ‘holding it in’ so they didn’t have to go to the toilet and a quarter of the children surveyed said they avoid the school toilets if possible. (Kirby, 2010).
- 16% of secondary school boys reported “bad things” happening in the toilets, making them wary of going in there (Kirby, 2010).
The results were similar to a 2003 study by Vernon et al (2003). That study questioned students in England and Sweden.
“Children from both countries said they found school toilets unpleasant, dirty, smelly, and frightening and that bullying occurred there. Many children avoided using the school toilets (62% of boys and 35% of girls (in the UK site) and 28% boys and girls in Swedish site avoided using the school toilets to defecate). Results were similar in both centres.”
School toilets have been identified as the locus for bullying, intimidation, self-harm and suicide.
In her 2013 literature review, Sarah Burton says:
“Most surveys of toilet facilities and children’s attitudes report them as being places of social intimidation to some extent. Children either dislike going to the toilet when other children are present and can hear what they are doing, or they might have experienced intimidation, for example: “if you have a coin then you can open the toilet from the outside, that happened to a friend of mine, he didn’t come to school for a week” (Lundblad et al., 2010).”
Steven Hastings (2006) says most cases of self harm take place hidden away in bedrooms or school toilets, and most young people are careful to cover the evidence.
Several studies. identified by the Continence Foundation of Australia (2017), suggest that school toilets are not only the site of bullying behaviour, but can also be instrumental in ‘creating’ both perpetrators and victims:
“… bladder and bowel problems can have a negative impact on a child’s self-esteem and that they are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of overt bullying behaviours.”
In Vernon et al’s (2003) two-country study, children in both the UK and Sweden said they were afraid to use the school toilets.