Throwing away the toilet taboo

Good architects know only too well the importance of promoting post-occupancy health and wellbeing, particularly in education settings. Purdie Proudman of Geberit explains how it’s now high time that specifiers view school bathrooms as much more than just purely functional spaces

What is the real impact of dilapidated and ageing school toilets on pupil wellbeing? Geberit carried out a YouGov poll which found that an alarming number of children are experiencing anxiety about using school toilets – something that could be affecting their wellbeing and learning, according to a leading expert.

Hygiene worries have always been a natural concern when it comes to school washrooms. Little wonder, when you consider how this space is one of the most in demand and high-traffic areas of any school. In April 2020, daily survey app ‘Teacher Tapp’ asked 6,000 teachers about hygiene precautions in their school.

A staggering 37 per cent of respondents reported that they did not have soap available for pupils, nor did they have hot water – with the latter a result of outdated plumbing systems.

Fast forward 12 months, and the world is quite different. Investments have since been made across the sector, with the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) estimating that an average of £8,075 had been spent per school in implementing hygiene and safety measures in the first few weeks of the academic year last September.

But what’s the view from pupils – how do they view their school washrooms? That’s what we wanted to find out when we conducted a YouGov poll of 1,000 parents. And it seems that the space is having much more of an effect on pupils then we may think.

Bathroom anxiety
Our poll of parents across the UK, undertaken in March 2021, revealed that almost half (46 per cent) reported that their children have experienced some form of anxiety about using toilet facilities in school. Meanwhile a third of parents also had concerns about standards of hygiene at their child’s school.

The most common sources of anxiety among children were general standards of hygiene in the bathroom space (19 per cent), followed by lack of privacy (16 per cent). Parents also reported children’s concerns regarding touchpoints and surfaces in school bathrooms, such as taps, handles and flushes (14 per cent) as well as a general anxiety about using toilets outside the home (14 per cent).

The significance of the washroom space in schools is undoubtedly felt by many pupils – and one would also argue that there has never been a more important time to offer pupils a space that they feel is safe, hygienic, private and comfortable.

School buildings
Meanwhile, our own snap survey of 100 schools found that school bathrooms were not at the top of the list of planning refurbishments for the majority of schools, with external school grounds (41 per cent) the most popular project and only 16 per cent of schools surveyed intending to refurbish toilets within the next 12 months. This comes after the announcement last summer of the Government’s £1bn school rebuilding programme, as well as £560m for refurbishing existing school buildings.

Schools, naturally, have so much to consider when it comes to building projects, but it does seem that the impact of the bathroom space on pupils may be underestimated and that the humble school bathroom may be getting overlooked.

Wellbeing link
Special educational needs expert, Gemma Corby explained: “The wellbeing of students should be at the heart of every school. If forced to ‘hold on,’ pupils may end up with medical complications which will impact attendance. It also has a psychological impact – if a student is bursting to use the toilet, then concentrating on lessons is going to be near impossible.

And if this isn’t bad enough, the problem is often compounded by pupils not drinking when at school, which isn’t good for their health or ability to learn. Hygienic toilet facilities are paramount, now more than ever. The fewer contact points there are, the better. This technology is available and often seen in shops and offices, so why not schools?”

Indeed, innovations like touchless products can help minimise those many touchpoints in the busy, high-footfall spaces – taps and flushes for instance. Towards the end of 2019 the industry was already seeing the growth of touchless products, thanks to their obvious hygienic benefits. Unsurprisingly, this is expected to continue and we can predict strong growth in these products, which can help maximise hygiene in the school washroom by making the experience as touchless as possible.

It’s not just this touchless technology that can help put hygiene at front-of-mind. Some toilet ranges incorporate a rimless design which crucially eliminates tricky corners and hard-to-reach areas around the pan. Likewise, flush technology means that the flushing system clears away residue effectively so regular maintenance and cleaning is made simpler.

But it’s not solely about product innovations. Good design, too, can do much to help change our view of the space. Wall-hung ceramic furniture, for instance, allows pipework and cisterns to be neatly concealed behind the wall, lifting the toilet from the footprint of the floor so, once again, making cleaning and maintenance easier. Just as importantly, however, this option opens up the space and creates a clutter-free, more streamlined design which really helps to reinforce the perception of a clean space.

Significance of the space
It’s time we change the perception of just how crucial the school bathroom is within the setting. School toilets can have a huge role to play in how pupils view their school. So, let’s return to the expert Gemma Corby, who summarises the importance when she states: “Relationships are reciprocal, so if a school is giving the message that they do not care about the wellbeing of their students, it makes sense that students will not care about school – which is not the outcome anyone wants.”

Purdie Proudman is channel marketing manager at Geberit