What will new gender-neutral toilets in schools look like?

Department of Education guide says new schools will not have traditional toilet layout

It’s a debate which has lit up Livelive and crackled across various radio phone-in shows: are gender-neutral toilets for schools a good idea?

It stems from a new Department of Education design guide for new and refurbished schools, details of which were reported in The Irish Times on Thursday.

Instead of traditional boys’ and girls’ toilets with urinals or cubicles in closed-off rooms, the new design is based on private cubicles that open into a public or common washbasin area.

A spokesman for the department said it will be a matter of choice for individual schools as to whether these facilities will be designated as mixed sex or categorised as for male or female use.


Nevertheless, the new design has sparked a fierce debate between those who see it an inclusive step for pupils and others who fear it will leave girls feeling unsafe and vulnerable.

So, what will they look like?

The design guidelines state that design of the toilets balance the requirement for “passive supervision” from circulation spaces with the dignity and privacy requirements of each user.

In other words, the shared washbasins are in an open area which is visible from the corridor, while individual cubicles are fully enclosed with full-height doors.

“Well-designed and well-managed sanitary facilities create cleaner, healthier spaces and are capable of being used, cleaned and maintained in a way that ensures safety and dignity of pupils and staff,” it states.

It says the toilets should be located in areas that can be easily supervised and evenly distributed throughout the school.

Student sanitary facilities in secondary schools should be arranged in “small blocks” and not in a large central block.

Why? It says small blocks “increase the opportunity for passive supervision, discourage anti-social behaviour, reduce disruption caused by cleaning and maintenance, and cut down curriculum time lost through pupils visiting sanitary facilities during lessons”.

It says there are no doors into the toilet blocks common areas as they “interfere with clear lines of sight and impede supervision of the general washroom space from the main circulation areas”.

Why is the toilet design being changed?

The guidance notes that schools being built or refurbished need to be flexible and future-proofed.

“A truly flexible design is capable of predicting the needs of the future through adapting to meet changing functional requirements,” the design guide states,

It adds that schools must meet the needs of a “pluralistic, multicultural society, catering equally and fairly for the needs of all”.

Against this backdrop, there have been wider calls from campaign groups such as BelongTo to ensure schools do more to become more inclusive of the needs of trans and non-binary students.

The passage of gender recognition legislation has also helped shift official thinking on these issues.

Who is in favour of gender-neutral toilets?

Most school management bodies are generally in favour of allowing students and parents to choose what suits the needs of the school community.

For example, BelongTo – the support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans young people – runs an awareness week which is supported by teachers’ unions and school management bodies.

Some Educate Together schools have opted to introduce gender-neutral toilets in their new buildings, in consultation with parents and students.

Eoin Shinners, principal of Limerick Educate Together Secondary School, said it has decided to include them in its new school building due in 2023.

“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.”

Who is opposed to the move?

Few groups have publicly voiced opposition to it with the exception of The Countess Didn’t Fight For This, which describes itself as a “grassroots human rights and advocacy group” of about 60-plus individuals which is resisting “gender ideology” being codified into law.

Laoise Uí Aodha de Brún of the group said the move jeopardises safety, privacy and dignity of schoolgirls.

She says some UK research shows the trend for gender-neutral or mixed-sex toilets has left girls feeling unsafe and is putting their health at risk.

“Some girls are even missing school rather than face period shaming from boys. Many girls run the risk of infections because they’d rather deal with a full bladder than use the toilets. Others have simply stopped drinking liquids at school, which can lead to dehydration,” she says.

Are there any schools which have had gender-neutral toilet in place?

Many third-level colleges have had gender-neutral toilers in place for some time, while some primary schools – such as St Brigid's National School in Greystones, Co Wicklow – recategorised its toilets as gender neutral a few years ago.

Several new secondary schools have either recently had gender-neutral facilities installed in new builds or will do soon.