Dirty Schools

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Are schools making children sick?

Avoid ‘high fives’. Schools are dirty places.

There are lots of people and lots of unwashed hands and there are also lots of  unclean surfaces and resources. Hygiene and infection control is difficult in an educational setting which is why bacteria love schools. They are vulnerable spaces and ideal breeding grounds for spreading illnesses. Many schools are plagued with high levels of bacteria.

A study by Rentokil Specialist Hygiene analysed bacteria levels in a large primary school by swabbing over 140 sites and found bacteria lurking everywhere.

They used a luminometer to read hygiene levels. Something with a reading between 200 to 500 is considered ‘normal’, below  200 is low but anything over 500 shows high levels of contamination. Here are the top five offenders:

  1. Play equipment at 7,479 units
  2. Chairs at 1,647 units
  3. Door handles at 1,358 units
  4. Door frames at 1,236 units
  5. Radiators at 858 units

Play equipment is a whopping 15 times higher than what is considered normal which is a phenomenal amount. This is why many medical centres have stopped having toys for children to play with or at least reduced the number of toys so that there are fewer to clean and manage. You might want to forget the magazines too.

Washing toys and resources needs to be done at least weekly and door handles certainly every day. Cleaning staff are pushed to get everything done but children themselves should be helping too. A ‘spring clean’ is a daily habit for some schools.

Hand In Hand

Keeping toys, equipment and resources clean is important and this has to go hand in hand with hand washing.

Rentokil also swabbed the hands of 175 children aged four to 10 and their results were alarming with an average reading of 2,283 units and one pupil’s hands showed a reading of 9,999.

How to wash your hands sounds as easy as ‘how to boil an egg’ but it is surprising how many people aren’t aware of the most effective technique for washing hands. 95% of us don’t. These ‘missed bits’ aren’t surprising given that on average most people only wash their hands for 6 seconds after visiting the loo – many don’t bother at all. It is recommended that we wash our hands vigorously using soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds, or the time it takes to sing or hum “Happy Birthday” twice.

So, how do you wash your hands?

Follow the NHS guide and teach children the same in an assembly then back in class.

One of the best assemblies I have ever led was on the topic of handwashing. It was also one of the most disruptive as everyone rushed to the toilets afterwards!

I contacted an infection control nurse working in the community and she lent me a hand inspection cabinet containing a UV lamp and some special lotion. The idea is that you wash your hands with the lotion and the UV lamp shows where it hasn’t been applied properly as the lotion will fluoresce thereby demonstrating the flaws in your handwashing technique.

This simple but effective set of resources is designed to make hand hygiene interesting, fun and memorable. It was certainly memorable because I think it took about an hour to get everyone back to class after the assembly as everyone wanted to wash their hands after I had explained the pitfalls of not doing so effectively. It also didn’t help to do the handwashing Gangnam style!

It’s easy to ‘poo-poo’ this video, but it’s meant to be fun and, combined with other hygiene messages, we can make infection control more long-lasting in the minds of children.

What else can we do?

Teaching children the importance of thoroughly washing their hands, particularly before eating is essential but there are a few other tips that we can share.

  1. Never cough or sneeze into your hands – if a tissue isn’t immediately available then cough or sneeze into your elbow or on your sleeve as this breaks the chain of transmission.
  2. Remind children not to touch their faces or put their fingers in their mouths or inside their noses – good luck with that!
  3. Use a hand sanitiser if available.

Poor hygiene in schools can be harmful to the whole school population as well as a school’s reputation which is why a clean and safe learning environment is a must-have for us all.

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