Risk-Averse Schools Drive Me “Potty”


Reading time: 4
Empty Toilet Rolls

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... Read more about John Dabell

Has your school banned toilet rolls?

Schools are ridiculously risk-averse and no more is this apparent than in art, craft and Design & Technology (D&T) activities.

Once upon a time, we were allowed to say to children in our classes on a Friday afternoon, “Don’t forget to bring in some empty loo rolls and cardboard tubes next week everyone!”

We would then proceed to recycle and make space rockets, castles, iPhone holders, bird feeders, pencil holders, Christmas crackers, giraffes and napkin rings. Everyone would be hands-on and everyone would be happy.

That was until someone in the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) coughed and choked and amended some policies. They said that toilet rolls were banned because they were a contamination risk and children might die by touching them. This person is normally the health and safety coordinator and loves a good risk assessment. Or, more often than not, it’s the headteacher.

Now we have to wear surgical gloves, protective visors, fluorescent jackets and provide every child with hand sanitiser when doing anything ‘crafty’. Art and D&T have been told to bog off. Blue Peter is now dirty and germ-ridden.

On a roll

But this as we all know is sheer lunacy. 90% of the children in a school will visit the toilet and do what they have to do without washing their hands. They then return to class touching every available surface en route and no one seems to be remotely bothered. We don’t seem to be that concerned that children wipe and swipe their iPads and phones after a toilet visit either. We let them get on with it even though there is a risk of contamination with Clostridium difficile and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.  

But heaven forbid they were to bring into school a toxic loo roll. Imagine the disease. It would spread like wildfire. It would close school for a month, contaminated areas would have to be taped off and a police officer in a special white suit would have to stand guard at the gates. Forensic Ofsted teams wearing masks would work under tents with the health and safety executive (HSE). They would take swabs and send them off to the lab.

Meanwhile the headteacher would go off sick and leave the health and safety paperwork, council investigation and media frenzy to an inexperienced deputy head just six weeks into the job. That’s if loo roll disease hadn’t wiped out the whole community by then.

Touching an actual empty toilet roll has now become the equivalent of touching something radioactive. Children have been taught that anything in a bathroom is full of germs and that loo rolls are just tubes of lethal germs. I get where this is coming from. Toilets and bathrooms that are unclean can be breeding grounds. Research shows that flushing the toilet without the lid down can lead to a splash of bacteria throughout the entire room. But toilets aren’t the only room that carries germs. Everywhere harbours something. If toilets are really that bad then people would be dropping like flies and getting sick all the time. But they don’t.

Getting to the bottom of it

Good news, the lab results have just come back. It’s pretty conclusive. They say “schools are wildly overreacting, contamination is an urban myth and so please stop the hysteria and teach children how to actually wash their hands properly!” And there’s the rub. When it comes to infection control in schools, it’s all about hand-washing and healthy habits. Yes, that goes for the staff too. It isn’t something we just do in Reception and Year 1 either.

Of course, cleaning surfaces is important but it is hand-washing that makes the key difference. This is where the focus should be and not scaremongering everyone into thinking that loo rolls are a health and safety no-go area. Germs are literally everywhere in a school. They are really dirty places and hand washing is something we all need to care about. Loo rolls haven’t been banned by any official body such as the HSE and yet schools are saying they are because of “health and safety”. There’s no scientific evidence to say they are unsafe and present a sanitary risk but some schools like to err on the extreme end of caution where the fairies live.

These are the same schools that won’t let children play with conkers, throw snowballs, fire shotguns, make fires or feed the water buffalo. They say they are “unsafe” and are “too dangerous”. When you ask them why they reply with a serious look on their faces and cough “because of health and safety.”

It’s crazy. Some places are asking parents to buy toilet rolls for their schools, others are banning the empty rolls from coming in.

A bum myth

I would encourage all primary schools to ask for donations of loo rolls for art and craft activities and stop being so risk-averse. Loo rolls are not a contamination risk and this is a bonkers health and safety myth. Don’t just take my word for it. Ask the HSE. They have a myth-busting page, a bit like Ofsted do except the HSE one is much bigger.

I draw your attention to Case 382: A trainer specialising in the delivery of training for disabled children was told that they can no longer give children toilet roll centres to play with because of health and safety.

The opinion of the Myth Busters Challenge Panel was as follows:

“This myth runs and runs. School science organisations such as CLEAPSS, the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre along with the Association for Science Education are clear that as long as toilet roll centres and egg boxes look clean, there is no reason why they should not be used. Everyday living presents a similar microbiological risk. Perhaps more energy should be put into making sure children (and adults!) wash their hands properly after using the toilet.”

So there we have it – soiled thinking. The dirty loo roll urban myth is one that schools need to stop cultivating and spreading because it is nonsense.

Egg on your face

Another myth is the salmonella risk of egg boxes. Of course, if you are unconvinced then you can bung the toilet roll cores in the microwave. Failing that ask children to bring in wrapping paper tubes and paper towel tubes but only if you know where they’ve been first! How do you know they’ve not just visited the loo and ‘forgot’ to wash their hands?

The number one thing we can all do is to get everyone hand-washing properly and making big noises about that. The mindset change we all need is to embrace risk and danger in schools responsibly and be more ‘Mike Fairclough’.

There is an excessively risk-averse culture in some schools that feeds off myths, legends, misinformation and misconceptions. The HSE has no problem with us using loo rolls and egg boxes so get children to bring them in and get hands-on.


2 thoughts on “Risk-Averse Schools Drive Me “Potty”

  1. It’s utterly crazy.
    A school I worked at would BUY cardboard tubes for craft activities to avoid potential contamination. Or if they didn’t have those loo rolls, the kids would have to make their own tubes of cardboard in order to make their castles/vehicles/models.
    Schools are petrified of being criticised/blamed/accused of not safeguarding children that they ban such innocuous things when there are far more germ-ridden things in the classrooms. Filthy places.

  2. Loo is just one another place where germs breed free. Stopping kids from touching toilet rolls one after the other may not always be the best solution in preventing them from getting sick. But not teaching proper hygiene after using the loo or leaving it unclean certainly would.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.