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Gill Kemp is the founder of Public Toilets UK a campaign which, with the support of ERIC and other charities, is working to improve toilet access for everyone from early years onwards. In this guest blog for ERIC, Gill reflects on how disposable nappies have changed toilet training practices and why it's so important for children to have free access to good quality toilets when they're at school. 

I recently attended an excellent ERIC training course on healthy bladders and bowels. Learning about the anatomy of these organs and the health problems that can disrupt their function was fascinating. However, it was the fact that so many children are starting school still wearing nappies that surprised me most. Is this because parents don’t have the time for toilet training, the lack of facilities or other circumstances?

The downside of disposable nappies 

Back in the 1970s and 80s when we considered our small children to be ‘ready’ we took off those soggy, towelling nappies and popped on towelling pants. Today in our fast moving world we rely on disposable nappies and they’re so much easier to use. I learned on the course however that there is a downside to disposables; the child in a disposable nappy doesn’t feel wet! As a result, toilet training can take longer and many children are still in nappies when they start school.

Baby in towelling nappy

Starting school

At school, away from their parents, children have to learn new rules about using toilets. As a parent, ex-teacher and now someone involved in the world of public toilets, I feel strongly about the importance of children having a positive attitude towards toilet facilities in schools. I can understand the reluctance of some early years staff not wanting to change a child’s nappy. It is however an opportunity to teach children not only how to use the toilet, but also about hygiene and respect for property that is not ours – ideally liaising with a parent or carer.

Children hand in hand

Restricted access and locked toilets

In schools for older children there have been reports of toilets being locked except at certain times. Refusing access to the toilet is not the way to prevent bullying or misuse in the loos. The embarrassment of a child soiling or wetting themselves in front of their classmates does untold harm and is an event that is never, ever forgotten. Another means of control is to have a child wear a lanyard to show they have permission to use the loo or allowing children who have not needed the loo during lessons to leave the room first. I believe these actions are degrading and must stop.

The embarrassment of a child soiling or wetting themselves in front of their classmates does untold harm and is an event that is never forgotten.

The classroom is a ‘place of work’ for children

In the adult world of work employees can generally use the toilet whenever they wish and standards are usually good. For our children the classroom is a ‘place of work’ and toilets should be available when needed. How many of us view the toilets when we visit a school as a prospective place for our child? A lot can be gleaned about a company from visiting its toilets. Similarly much can be learned about a school and the attitude towards the students from its loos – the maintenance, the level of supplies and the cleanliness. If you wouldn’t want to use the facilities why should you expect your child to do so? Going to the toilet whilst at school is part of a child’s school experience; it’s up to us to ensure that experience is a positive one.

Children at school

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