12 July 2023

Schools have every right to lock their loos during lesson time


In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes… and schools being criticised for having and enforcing rules.

The current storm-in-a-tweetcup is about a secondary school locking (most of) its toilets during lessons. Apparently, asking teenagers to go as long as a whole hour between toilet trips is an infringement on their human rights, and further evidence of how schools under the Conservatives have become dreary, controlling places.

I’m not sure that it is to be honest. But it is a brilliant example of the kind of situations schools increasingly find themselves in thanks to the toxic combination of pushy parents, social media, and a news industry desperate for content.

Let’s look at the loo lunacy then.

Outside of Pink Floyd classics, teachers aren’t generally known for their fascistic tendencies. Why might schools have a rule that pupils can’t pop to the toilet during lessons (other than for the tiny number who will need to go at short notice)?

There are two main reasons – and they are why I had the same rule when I was a head.

First of all, kids wandering in and out of classrooms is really disruptive. Commentators who have never actually worked in schools perhaps imagine them to be somewhat like offices, where people quietly nip to the toilet and back again with no impact on the work in hand.

Lessons with 25 pupils aren’t like this. They are more like a rehearsal or performance of a play. Everyone needs to be involved all the time, so they know what’s required of them.

Can you imagine a show where members of the cast just wandered off for a loo break regardless of proceedings?

FIRST WITCH: “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?” 



SECOND WITCH: “Sorry, I was just exercising my human right to go to the toilet, alright? Now, where were we..?”

FIRST WITCH: “Could you not have waited until the hurley-burly’s done?”

And of course, pupils returning from their toilet trip will need to find out what they have missed, which requires input from the teacher or a fellow student. Now do this half a dozen times a lesson, and you’ve wasted serious time for everyone.

There’s also the question of what kids are getting up to when they’re out of class. Again, it feels as though commentators have never met a teenager or forgotten what their own school days were like.

I’m sure that they were the living embodiment of academic dedication, but this is not the case for many children. Some want to get out to meet up with mates, and some to check their phone and fire off a few more nasty messages to another pupil. There’ll be those desperate for a vape or smoke. And some will want to have a wander, just because.

And we can’t have this. The primary legal and moral obligation of a school is to keep its pupils safe, and in the real world this is not possible if you don’t know where they are and what they’re up to.

Toilets are usually the place in school where pupils report that they feel least safe. It’s why great schools put so much thought into how they’re designed, supervised, and accessed. I doubt you’ll find a school that doesn’t have a staff breaktime duty to keep an eye on pupil toilets, and it isn’t reasonable to expect this level of supervision during other times too as there are other things to be getting on with – like, um, lessons.

“But what about kids who just need to go? Or girls who are on their period?” I hear some say.

Well, the vast majority can and do cope with using the toilet before school, at break times, and between lessons. We’re talking about going an hour or two at the most between opportunities. And by having a strict rule that covers everyone, it makes it easier to identify those who genuinely need to be an exception to this. 

The key is that rules are clear and stuck to, and any exceptions remain exceptional. It’s how you keep things orderly and fair. Let that slip and you’ll have some kids pushing at boundaries and putting individual staff under pressure, and things will then quickly deteriorate. 

Of course, the above is rarely reflected in social media or press coverage. The analysis never seems to get beyond a parent’s emotional version of events accompanied by a sad picture of said parent and pupil, and a bland and defensive statement from the school concerned.

If only commentators were as concerned about schools where pupils don’t feel safe in the toilets, or where vandalism and vaping is rife. Or those schools that underperform year on year due to low expectations or bad behaviour.

However, until people focus on the things that really matter and not chaff thrown up by disgruntled kids or charities trying to get a media hit, school shaming stories will keep rising – like vaping fumes in an unsupervised loo.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.