Schools are being allowed to choose whether their toilet facilities will be gender neutral under new construction and refurbishment guidelines from the Department of Education.
An updated school design guide states that most toilet facilities in future will include self-contained cubicles with their own doors and communal access to sinks. The illustrations provided in the official design guide shows boys and girls accessing the shared facilities.
A spokesman for the department said it will be a matter of choice for individual schools as to whether these facilities will be mixed sex or categorised as male or female.
The development has prompted a mixed response from the wider school community. Eoin Shinners, principal of Educate Together Secondary School in Limerick, said it was an inclusive step .
He said the school’s new building – due to be completed in 2023 – will include gender neutral toilets. The decision to opt for this was made in consultation with students, parents and the board of management.
“It’s reflective of how society is nowadays and we’re very welcoming of it. There is a mind-shift involved for many people,” he said. “We see it as an inclusive measure. Students will still have a choice to use other standalone toilets if they feel in any way uncomfortable.”
However, some campaigners who are opposed to gender recognition legislation say the move will leave girls feeling unsafe.
Laoise Uí Aodha de Brún said evidence from the UK suggested that some girls were missing school instead of facing “period shaming” from boys. She accused authorities of scrapping single sex toilets without consultation.
The department said it was aware that toilets may be the scene of bullying and the new design – where shared washbasins are visible from the corridor outside – provide for “passive supervision” of these spaces.
“The safety of the pupils must be balanced against the individual dignity and privacy requirements in sanitary facilities,” it said.
“Spacious and well-lit circulation areas designed with visual connectivity to sanitary facilities build a sense of communality.”
It said physical connectivity between these spaces “enhances accessibility and reduces the risk of bullying”.
The department’s school design guide states that the new layout follows an extensive review of recently built schools.
“Lessons learned incorporating feedback from schools, international best practice . . . has resulted in significant review of the design guidance.”
The department said the design of new school sanitary facilities was primarily to ensure they facilitate “all users regardless of ability or disability, to minimise the risk of bullying and to minimise the consumption of water, energy and other consumables”.
The school design guide states that a standalone “unisex” cubicle should be provided close to every toilet block, with separate access from the main toilets.
Mr Shinners said these separate toilets will be available to any student who feels uncomfortable using the gender neutral toilets in the case of the new Educate Together Secondary School.
The design guide states that separate staff/visitor sanitary facilities should be provided close to the main entrance.