The outdated rules on bathroom breaks in schools are in dire need of reform



A few months ago, an incident happened at my girlfriend’s school during her A-levels. One of her teachers had not let her out of a lesson despite asking to go to the toilet. Later that day, I had to watch as my girlfriend showed me blood-soaked clothes as she had been on her period but had not been allowed to change her pad.

After this I knew I needed to report the incident. A teacher at the school was informed and still, nothing. To this day they have not removed that member of staff and the school’s rules remain the same. So, there I was, stuck. My girlfriend had to go to that same class with that same teacher and there was nothing that we could do.

That is how I got into this campaign – a campaign to change the rules on bathroom breaks. Normally I start campaigning on something because it is a big political issue, or I know someone more distantly where something has happened to them. In this case, however, my fight to change the law on this issue is very much driven by seeing what giving teachers the power to stop students from going to the toilet can do in practice. Among the madness of national politics, issues like this are easily ignored.

The shock was then finding out that this situation is not isolated, in fact, Plan UK said “Almost 70% of girls aren’t allowed to go to the toilet during lessons” and I found multiple incidents of it happening in schools leading to some awful consequences. It’s not even limited to single incidents, with at least one student having it happen to them twice. The school did inform me that they have now changed the rules but this shouldn’t need to happen to any student.

It also is not just something that happens to women and girls. Issues such as urinary incontinence and inflammatory bowel disease can both cause the same issues that end in people literally wetting themselves because they cannot go to the toilet.

At the heart of this is an argument about dignity and freedom of choice. When teachers can do this, it can remove that student’s dignity and they can’t go to the toilet unless they want to risk repercussions.

The law needs to change on this issue and that is where I have worked with the rest of Centre Think Tank on a solution. Our solution comes in the form of a paper and a campaign on bathroom breaks. Both support making it so that students can always use the toilet on request – it is a basic human dignity that cannot be denied.

We are also getting ready for a new campaign to change the law on this issue. I can’t reverse what happened, but I can change the rules so that this doesn’t happen to other students. Centre originally set out in our paper how the law can be changed in every part of the UK, it is now our job to get it done.

Yet, as with any new proposal, people often ask questions such as “what about those who run away from lessons”? The issue is we should not be making rules that hurt those who are good just because we want to stop those who aren’t. Stopping people from going to the toilet just ends up creating more students who do not want to follow the rules, because they are convinced that the rules are flawed. Who could blame them if they have gone through something like that and then being told to follow the teacher’s rules because they are doing what is best of them? We also need to focus on the underlying issues – keeping a student in the classroom does not actually tackle why they want to leave the classroom to begin with. After all, there are issues such as family problems that can be the real root cause.

The other point is it does need to be a ban, not just guidance. Layla Moran has put forwards a Private Members’ Bills on the topic that would make the secretary of state publish guidance on the issue so that “teachers [can] use their common sense in letting their students go the bathroom during their lessons”. Whilst it was a welcome step forwards in England, this exact same approach has not worked in Wales. There are still cases in there, such as this one which happened in Newport just a year ago.

For me, both point to a full change in the law being needed. When the other options do not work and the benefits clearly outweighing the negatives, I think its clearly time to change the law.

These are big steps, but this is a huge problem and with everyone who speaks to me about their experience of this, the larger I realise it is. Current conditions allow for Victorian rules in schools that we do not expect in a modern society such as ours. We know exactly how it can be fixed, we just need to do something about it.

Torrin Wilkins is the founder and director of Centre Think Tank. You can follow him on Twitter: