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Schools that deny access to toilets during class-time do not prioritise their students

Jen Hogan: Children are treated as second-class citizens all too often in this country

“Can I pick your brains?” a worried parent asked me recently. Her child, a teenager, was attending a school where children weren’t allowed to use the toilets during class-time, as students had been vaping in them.

Her teen was hugely stressed and worried by this, she said. A resulting accident had led to teasing by peers and more embarrassment and stress. The parent was at a loss wondering what to do, and if her school was an outlier in this practice.

So, I asked other parents and sincerely hoped the school was. It’s the sort of thing you might have believed had been resigned to the distant past when “an cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?” was asked in desperate hope, rather than modern day expectation.

But the replies from parents of both primary and secondary schoolchildren horrified me.


“The toilets are locked during class,” one parent answered. “There’s a few open at lunch.” But, she added, “The queue is so long that they are late, or leave. Shocking!”

Locked toilets was a repeated feature of the replies. “Toilets in secondary are locked during class, due to vaping,” another parent explained.

“They have two toilet passes a day and must use it on their breaks. Only one emergency pass per week,” another parent replied.

“In secondary school, my son was told he was going too often, and now can only go once a day,” said another. “[I’ve a] third-year boy. Some of the teachers say no, they’ve to wait until the gap between class,” another mother said. While others added: “I’ve had to go into the teacher each year [about it]” and “literally only this week had an issue with this”.

Several parents voiced their frustration and upset that their children had made a resulting conscious decision to reduce their fluid intake, or had accidents due to restricted access to the toilet. “My son wet himself in school because he wasn’t allowed and told no one until he came home, so wet in school,” one explained, while another with a similar story said, “My child peed himself as he wasn’t allowed use the toilet. I rang the school, furious”.

If we were to suggest treating any other group in society like this there would, quite rightly, be uproar

And being of menstruating age is no guarantee that you’ll be allowed to use the bathroom either it appears. “Teen girl in first year and only two of the teachers let them go to the toilet. The other seven don’t,” a parent of a teenage daughter explained.

“My daughter’s school used to lock the toilets and only open them at certain times. My daughter had very heavy periods and ended up destroyed on a few occasions,” another said.

Teachers also responded to my query, with some saying they’d never deny a child access to the toilet, while others explained it was a delicate balance trying to decipher those who genuinely needed the toilet from those who might be trying to escape the class.

Others explained the potential difficulties that could arise when children are free to roam the corridors without supervision, such as bullying, accidents and vaping.

But irrespective of the reason, children’s needs are not being met if accessing the toilet when they need to is not a guarantee. Adults being prevented from using the toilet at work would never be tolerated.

The thing is, we’ve seen children treated as second-class citizens all too often in this country. Parents having to go to the national press to plead for access to services and special schools. Children living in poverty and homelessness. Schools closed for an unforgivably long time during pandemic restrictions, with little thought for how it might impact all our children, but particularly our most vulnerable. Playgrounds closed. Certain shops openly excluding children. They were “vectors”, we were told, and avoided like the plague. Children’s needs were deemed to be less important than adults, and we were okay with that.

And I’ve listened to and read pieces over the years about whether or not people were prepared to pay for a child-free zone on a plane, or in restaurants and other places. All the while the discussion lending itself to a growing, socially acceptable, subtle, intolerance of children. If we were to suggest treating any other group in society like this there would, quite rightly, be uproar. Children should be seen and not heard, actually preferably not seen either, if the price is right. Because children’s rights don’t matter as much.

And yes there may be difficulty policing bullying incidents and vaping (as the problem appears to grow ever worse with teenagers) at schools, but is any of this an acceptable reason to deny a child the right to use a bathroom in line with normal bodily functions?

There has to be another way, one that protects a child’s dignity and rights.

Because humiliation is not a solution.