Welsh schools caught short on toilet provision

For context, I am a parent of two children at school in South Wales. One in primary school, and one at high school.

About six years ago, several things caught my attention.

One was an increased public awareness of the extent that women and girls are victims of sexual harassment and assault. Movements like ‘Me Too’ and reports in publications like the TES highlighted a culture in which girls seemed to be subjected to sexist/misogynist bullying, ‘unwanted touching’ and sexual assault in schools. It was endemic, and overwhelming. And schools seemed to accept this almost as ‘standard’. Girls of school age I knew seemed almost resigned to it. This appalled me.

I was also aware of friends’ daughters and sisters who were starting periods and having to deal with menstruation at school. This was often a fraught experience, with fear of being singled out, mocked by boys and having to deal with menstrual incidents high on the list. Access to secure and private toilets was clearly key.

I felt schools had a lot of work to do to address these things, and make school a safer and happier place for girls. I started dialogue with the school my children attended about how they were tackling things. The first thing I realised is that it can be very hard to work out what is actually happening in a school. School leaders typically want to present their school in a very rosy light, and can downplay problems. I was repeatedly told that there was no sexist bullying, and that children were not raising concerns about menstruation or toilets.

I knew from what my kids and others, and their parents, said that this just wasn’t true. To cut a long story short – girls, and their parents, were raising concerns. But they weren’t being recorded anywhere. There was literally nothing to show it was happening. Once I started asking around, it became clear that this was the predominant pattern in nearly all the schools that children I knew attended.

As well as concerns and incidents not being recorded, sometimes the problem was ‘reframed’ so that it basically vanished.

Example – the mother of a girl in my child’s high school had raised concerns repeatedly about her daughter’s experiences related to the school toilets and menstruation. Her daughter would try and go all day without using the toilets, and when she had her period, her mother would sometimes have to go and collect her from school (so she was missing lessons). She said that boys would comment on how long girls spent in the toilet, and how they must be having a period if they took a while. The mother spoke to the Head teacher about it (so this, by any measure, is ‘raising concerns’). The Head said that if her daughter had a problem around periods, she should go and see the school nurse.

But this wasn’t a girl having ‘a problem’ with periods. This was a girl having problems with the school environment, particularly the targeted bullying of female pupils in a mixed sex toilet space.

I admit I had no idea that boys and girls were expected to share toilets in schools until several years ago. I couldn’t understand why this would be a good arrangement, particularly once children started hitting puberty. I have asked a LOT of children what they would prefer – separate toilets for boys and girls, or shared toilets, with boys and girls mixing. Overwhelmingly – without exception, in fact – kids want separate spaces, according to sex. Boys as well as girls.

So why isn’t anyone asking children what they prefer? Worse, why are they being ignored when they speak up and tell schools what they want? An acquaintance who works at a high school told me girls often raise complaints about the unisex toilets at School Council. They are just told there is ‘nothing they can do about it.’ Why not? (and I bet those requests aren’t recorded anywhere, either).

Some insight came about when the plans for several new build schools in South and mid Wales met opposition from parents. Unisex or gender neutral toilets were presented as a standard part of the plan. No consultation, no data gathering on what kids actually wanted. It was just presented, very positively, by local authorities and Welsh Government (who share funding for new school builds) as part of the great new facilities the school would have. Worse, sometimes it wasn’t ‘presented’ at all. Little or no attention was drawn to the fact that boys and girls would be sharing toilets, until the new school opened. Unhappy children told parents, who only then were able to object.

In some schools I know of, parents have been successful, or partly successful, in overturning plans for unisex toilets. Toilets that were gender neutral throughout the school were redesignated to create more male and female only toilets. But it was too late in the day to make big changes. Often the layout of the toilets in new builds means that redesignating them creates one large girls’ toilet in one school block, with the nearest boys’ toilet ten minutes walk away in another. That doesn’t help any pupils, especially high school kids who typically have lessons all around a big campus.

So why aren’t pupils and parents properly consulted before these toilets are made unisex? Why don’t schools or Councils use the principle of ‘consent’?

In any case, putting parents in a position where they have to object strongly to plans that have already been made, and built, seems a very poor way to engage with a school community. Typically these scenarios see school leadership and Councils being defensive, and parents having to be very assertive in order to get them to listen. It almost seems to be an exercise in seeing how much of a fight parents will put up. Something ridiculous that happens once this gets any coverage in local papers is that the school Head will say: ‘We haven’t had any complaints’. Despite the parents quoted in the newspaper. Despite the comments from parents on social media school groups.

That’s because schools aren’t asking pupils, or parents, what they think. Worse – as I described earlier – when complaints are made, and concerns raised, they are minimised and not recorded. If a school creates a culture where pupils are scared of complaining, or simply understand there is no point in complaining, then school leadership can say – ‘there’s no problem. We haven’t had any complaints’.

I wanted to know where the drive to install unisex toilets as standard throughout schools came from. That quickly became an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ journey. Come with me.

SCHOOLS say they are presented with plans that include mixed sex toilets by Local Authorities. But LOCAL AUTHORITIES say that Welsh Government (in the form of a funding offshoot called 21st Century Schools) presents them with mixed sex toilets as standard. 21st CENTURY SCHOOLS say that schools are asking for them. Not only that – but the “majority” of pupils “appear to favour them”!

The icing on the cake is that 21st Century Schools told me that they “weren’t aware of any pupil concerns” about them.

Again, that response. “We haven’t had any complaints”. I pursued this, and 21st Century Schools eventually told me they didn’t hold any data on bullying in schools, in general. And NO DATA on bullying and female pupils. So, no complaints – and no data.

So who is driving this change? And where is the data to back it up?
21st Century Schools also held no data “relating to the distinction between open plan and unisex toilets.” This is important because parents are invariably told that redesigned toilets in new builds reduce bullying. But they are also typically a different layout to toilets in older buildings. They tend to be large rooms, opening off busy corridors, with an open doorway to access the room. This layout could well reduce bullying, compared to an isolated toilet block.

So is it the ‘unisex’ aspect, or the ‘open plan’ aspect which reduces bullying? No one knows. Because there isn’t any data.

(How 21st Century Schools know these toilets reduce bullying at all, I don’t know, if they hold no data on bullying.)

On that subject, and the issue of ‘consent’ – the only data gathering exercise I have seen on toilets in a new build school in South Wales (by the Local Authority) recorded a large number of pupils expressing ‘anxiety’ about them. But concerns about mixed sex toilets were lumped in with concerns about the number of toilets, how clean they would be, , and where they would be. So here, in a rare exercise in asking kids what they actually want, the data can’t be broken down usefully. Girls’ concerns about sharing toilets with boys won’t be fixed by telling them how many toilets there’ll be.

21st Century Schools also insist the new design mixed sex toilets are more ‘inclusive’, as well as ‘reducing bullying’. This word ‘inclusive’ crops up a lot. It is sometimes used to belittle parents objecting on behalf of their kids. As if to oppose the unisex toilets is to oppose inclusivity, or to celebrate bullying. I know a new school at the planning stage in the Valleys currently has Welsh Govt representatives telling parents who object that they ‘don’t understand what modern buildings are like’. As if to want girls to have their own safe, separate toilets is somehow unprogressive.

This is hypocritical and coercive. 21st Century Schools tell us that unisex toilets reduce bullying – but they hold no data on bullying. They tell us schools ask for unisex toilets – but schools say the plans are presented to them as a ‘done deal’. This takes us out of the realm of ‘consent’, and into ‘gaslighting’.

The only other place I have seen such an insistence on unisex or gender neutral toilets as standard is in ‘Transgender Guidance’ aimed at schools.

We have a version in Wales which seems to originate in Brighton, with a group called ‘Allsorts Youth Project’. It was adapted for use in Wales by a group called Trans*Form Cymru. It has been adopted by some Councils and schools here, and rejected by others. Other drivers of the push for mixed sex/gender neutral toilets in schools are Stonewall Cymru, and AGENDA.

AGENDA is a pack for schools intended to promote “gender wellbeing and gender equalities for respectful relationships”, according to Welsh Govt. Among other things, Agenda suggests an activity for primary age children called ‘Gender Watch Bingo’. Pupil volunteers for each year are encouraged to conduct a ‘Gender Watch audit’, awarding stars to see if a school has addressed various issues. The AGENDA pack provides a list of these issues for the children. These include ‘regular staff training on gender equality’, ‘raising money for gender equality charities and organisations’ – and asking for ‘gender inclusive toilets’.

(I’ve included several of these issues so you get the gist. I currently have a kind and fair minded 8 year old, who I guarantee would be as baffled as I am by the idea that they should care about staff training on gender equality, let alone ‘audit’ it.)

I think much of this Agenda pack projects adult ideas and preoccupations onto children, and then basically uses the kids as ‘puppets’, or mouthpieces, for those views. I really object to that. There is an appalling lack of data gathering and consultation when it comes to school kids and mixed sex toilets. So encouraging pupils – primary age pupils – to ask their school for ‘gender inclusive toilets’, when they don’t really understand what they are asking for, or why, is thoroughly dishonest manipulation of children. All this happens without parents’ knowledge, as well.

Of course provision should be made for the small number of trans identifying kids who don’t want to use toilets designated by sex. A few well placed separate enclosed ‘washrooms’ that can be used by anyone are a valuable resource for schools, not least because they can be used by any adult visitors to the school, of either sex, without coming into close proximity with pupils in toilets.

Another issue that seems rarely recorded, and that I don’t expect 21st Century Schools know anything about, is the formal and informal division of ‘shared’ toilet spaces into male and female cubicles after they have been built. Typically an open plan toilet mixed sex toilet room is redesignated so boys use cubicles on one side, and girls the other side, and a central ‘handwash basin’ area is shared. Some schools have done this themselves, with school leaders taking the initiative. Sometimes, the pupils themselves seem to have insisted on a distinction, and make informal rules up themselves. Children really shouldn’t be left to sort out the mess adults have made for them.

Formal or informal, in these scenarios, toilets cubicles are no longer ‘gender neutral’. But the space itself is still mixed sex. So pupils still mix and queue as they come and go, and when they wash hands. Any trans identifying pupil now has to publicly choose a cubicle that is for ‘boys’ or ‘girls’. And girls are still subject to scrutiny, harassment and ‘period shaming’. What is the point? Why on earth pursue this policy of forcing mixed sex toilets through at planning stage?

I started by discussing the problem of sexism, sexual harassment and assault in schools, and the difficulties girls face around menstruation in school environments. I focused on school toilets because these have a direct effect on girls’ wellbeing, safety and happiness. If anyone bothers to ask them.

It has become apparent to me that the hypocritical circus driving the loss of female toilets lays bare the total disregard schools, Councils and Welsh Government have for sex based rights. Sexual harassment in schools, period ‘dignity’ and single sex school toilets are issues that go hand in hand. Because they are about girls’ experiences, and girls’ spaces and boundaries.

I should add I am now a school governor. As governors, we are constantly told of the need to be ‘data driven’. This makes complete sense to me.

But the push to make school toilets mixed sex is not data driven at all. It is ideological. It denies girls their own female spaces, and the right to set their own boundaries. It excludes parents from decisions made about their children, and belittles them when they insist on being heard. It does not consult, or listen. It couldn’t be less transparent. And it makes girls (and their parents) feel like they’ve done something wrong for needing female only spaces, and the right to set boundaries, in the first place. As I said earlier – this ideology takes us away from ‘consent’. And puts us into realm of ‘gaslighting’.