Could this be the (surprising) way to improve student performance?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

If I say the words "school toilets", what comes to mind?

Most likely, your brain comes up with images of a semi-dark, grotty, smelly, barely functional spaces you occasionally inhabited – not from choice – in your school days. And things haven't changed: my children come home with stories of toilet paper on the roof, blocked cisterns and, sometimes, poo on the walls.

We've grown accustomed to this as the way things are, and have never thought to change it. But education expert Dannielle Miller of Enlighten Education has.

"I was reading a news article about a young boy in the US who had been really distressed and had gone to his school toilets and hurt himself. I felt overwhelmed with sadness about that, and I realised it doesn't have to be this way," she says.

"Why do we accept that school toilets are going to be really gross and really uninspiring?"

Miller then turned to the research, to uncover the big picture of school toilets. She found that:

  • Students often avoid going to the toilet at school, sometimes avoiding drinking water during the day to help them not need the toilet. This dehydration affects concentration and learning.
  • School toilets are a place students go when they're upset. The toilet is also the site of crying, self-harm, bullying and intimidation.
  • The low hygiene levels in school toilets creates health problems

And so The School Toilet Project was born.

Helping kids to make positive change

The School Toilet Project has taken the research and Miller's expert ideas around what students need.

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"We want to encourage the students themselves to reflect on how they use the toilets, what they would like the toilets to be like, think critically about how the environment of it impacts on their mood, and what kinds of things make them feel better when they're distressed and upset," Miller says.

"All the meaty, exciting learning happens when we involve the students in the process. They now recognise a situation that isn't great and think about how they can change it – and they'll develop teamwork, problem solving, time management and creativity along the way."

Miller has also added an interior designer, the award-winning Alexandra Kidd into the mix, to inspire students in the pilot project.

"When I asked Alexandra to join the project, I thought she'd laugh at the idea of working with kids to reimagine school toilets – is there anything less glamorous?" Miller laughs. "But she thought it was incredible."

Kidd went along to the school involved in the pilot project, Cheltenham Girls in north-west Sydney, and spoke with them about environment, colour and design.

The kids have since developed their ideas and are now hard at work improving their school toilets. "I went in to have a look at how it's progressing, although I can't say too much because they really want it to be a surprise for the school," Miller says. "But it's mind-blowing: it looks so fresh and bright, and so fun. As soon as you walk in, the first word you see is 'smile', with beautiful artwork.

"I can just imagine that any young girl going into those toilets to compose herself and splash her face is going to smile, take a breath and read lots of messages of support from their peers that might just give her that little extra something to get back to class and soldier on."

Miller hopes that this can inspire high schools and primary schools to take charge of their own school toilets. If you're keen to get your school's toilets improved, head to The School Toilet Project website for more information.

She says, "School toilets could not only be cleaner, but a place that offers a bit of hope, energy and inspiration for young people."