Lori Anderson: Let’s flush away unisex toilets

Skara Brae in Orkney had inside toilets 5,000 years ago. Picture: Jane Barlow
Skara Brae in Orkney had inside toilets 5,000 years ago. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Why we must ensure that plans for unisex toilets in schools are no more than a flash in the pan writes Lori Anderson

In the loos of Harrods it costs £1 to spend a penny, such is the rapacious progress of inflation. In 1852, when the first public toilets opened in London at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, the one penny entrance fee also included a shoe shine and an assortment of brushes with which to spruce oneself. We don’t yet know the cost that Scots pupils will pay for spending a penny in the schools of the future but I suspect that the Scots cringe may make it too costly.

The Scottish Government’s plan for new school toilets smells a bit funny to me. You may not be aware but that haven of solitary refuge for nervous pupils of either sex is about to be phased out and flushed away. The boys’ toilets and the girls’ toilets, once separate worlds, forbidden mysterium to either group, are to be replaced by the bright new world of unisex toilets, where male urinals are banished entirely and where mirrors, hand dryers and washbasins will be used and shared by everyone at the same time from first-year girls to sixth year boys. The toilet cubicles will remain private, with boys using those on one side and girls using those on the other side but once ablutions are complete, pupils will be back into the warm, understanding and tolerant embrace of their fellow pupils of both sexes, or so the swots at the Scottish Futures Trusts (SFT), who dreamt up this plan, sincerely hope.

The SFT, the organisation charged with designing and building the next generation of primary and secondary schools for the government, announced that there will no longer be the traditional boys or girls’ toilets. Barry White, the chief executive of the SFT, said the new unisex facilities will reduce feelings of anxiety about going to the toilet, indeed, because what teenage girl won’t feel immeasurably calmer during her inchoate time of the month by being greeted by an adolescent boy at the wash basin. The SFT also thinks that the new system will reduce incidents of bullying and, apparently, it also encourages more boys to wash their hands, as the washing area is on public view and visible to passing teachers.

Last week Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said the changes were “unacceptable” and bound to lead to “sensitive children, or children with a nervous disposition” simply refusing to go to the toilet. “If boys have ready access to toilets alongside girls there will be problems inevitably. It is mad to have a 15-year-old girl going into a toilet alongside a group of boys.” The opinion was shared by Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives’ spokeswoman for young people, who said most parents would be against an idea that had the potential to “cause awkwardness and embarrassment”.

The common lavatory, latrine or as they were once referred to in Scotland, private necessaries, has gone through many permutations over the past 5,000 years. There is evidence that the residents of Skara Brae had cubicles over drains and so a possible indoor toilet while the denizens of the Indus Valley were already flushing their effluent away in the year 2000 BC. The Romans had a goddess of the sewers, Cloacina, and cleaned themselves using a communal sponge on a stick, thus bequeathing us a rather vulgar term about which end of a stick it is unfortunate to grasp. It was a trio of men over three centuries who helped refine the mechanised flushing toilet, firstly Sir John Harrington in 1596, then the Scotsman Alexander Cumming who patented it in 1775 and finally, Thomas Crapper who improved the flushing mechanism and invented the ballcock. Oh and, generously lent his name to an alternative title to the “smallest room in the house”. I explain this to point out that the general march of progress among the mechanics of toilets is forward, while what the SFT have planned is a step back.

I wonder how many women were involved in making this revolutionary design decision? Men might ignore the toilet mirror entirely and view the wash basin as purely functional, while clearly many teenage boys view an encounter with the taps and the brutalism of a wash-basin as entirely optional. Teenage girls, however, who may already be tortuously anxious about their appearance, will view the prospect of titivating themselves under the gaze of a gaggle of boys as one of deep horror.

The scale of unintended consequences for this new paradigm shift in public ablutions could range from increased social anxiety among nervous teenage boys and girls; a new generation of victims bullied in the toilets, not only by their own sex but the opposite sex too; unwanted pregnancies as the toilet cubicle becomes the new “behind the bike shed” and, in the very worst case scenario, a rise in sexual abuse. So why exactly are we dispensing with a system of sexual segregation which appears to have worked remarkably well for the past century or so?

Can it really be because of bullying and as an elaborate means of making boys wash after they flush? I would be interested to see if there are any cost implications with unisex toilets cheaper than the current status quo. While there will be many pupils unphased by these new changes, my sympathies are for the emotionally vulnerable for whom their new classroom cry may well be: “Please may I not go to the toilet, sir.”