We have been contacted by parents whose children’s schools are introducing mixed sex (often described as ‘gender neutral’ toilets) often removing the girls’ facilities to do so. There have been several news stories reporting this trend including in Brighton, London and Warrington.
Despite its prevalence, the term ‘gender neutral’ is widely contested. In practice, the creation of ‘gender neutral’ provision often favours one set of people over another. For example, where toilets are converted to ‘gender neutral’ provision, it is often the women’s or girls’ toilets that are used. The term ‘gender neutral’ ignores the different needs of women and girls.
We prefer to use the term ‘mixed-sex’ as this better represents the reality of the situation.
Toilet provision which is a single cubicle with inclusive sink, dryer, sanitary bin and a floor to ceiling door could more properly be called ‘gender neutral’ but we prefer the term unisex or single occupancy.
The responsibility of schools in England
Schools must provide separate sex provision for children over 8 as outlined in the Schools Premises Regulations (2012). The guidance is quite clear on this.
In June 2018, the Department of Education reissued guidance from the Department of Education on the responsibilities of school in relation to ‘gender separation’.
Paragraph 13 clearly states:
“It is permissible for toilet and boarding accommodation facilities to be separate as they are captured under existing statutory exceptions. Separate toilet and washing facilities must be provided for boys and girls aged 8 years and over pursuant to Regulation 4 of the School Premises (England) Regulations 2012, which falls within the exemption provided for in Schedule 22 of the Equality Act 2010.”
Here is a screenshot from the document:
Some local authorities have interpreted the guidelines differently, because the 2012 regulations allow for an exception to single-sex segregation in the case of toilet facilities provided “in a room that can be secured from the inside and that is intended for use by one pupil at a time”.
Previously, this wording has been understood to refer to toilets for pupils with disabilities. Some local authorities, however, are now interpreting “room” to mean a whole toilet block. They then use this to argue that mixed-sex toilets are not illegal.
In fact, the wording of the original 2012 guidelines clearly demonstrates that any single cubicle provision should be in addition to, not instead of, separate provision for male and female pupils.
Related regulatory guidance requires any unisex cubicle to be self-contained, to offer privacy and security, with walls and doors down to the floor without gaps at the bottom, as set out in the statutory building regulations on disabled toilet design. The 2012 regulations were never intended to permit the conversion of existing toilet cubicles, with gaps under the walls and doors, to ‘gender neutral’ simply by changing the label on the door, as is happening in some schools.
The responsibility of schools in Wales
School toilets in Wales are covered by different legislation. The Education (School Premises) 1999 regulations still apply, and they clearly state:
“Except as provided in regulation 4(3), washrooms for male and female pupils who have attained the age of 8 years shall be separate.”
Regulation 4 (3) refers to the provision of facilities for disabled staff and pupils.
There is no ambiguity in the Welsh regulations: schools must provide separate male and female toilets for pupils over the age of 8.
Some schools in Wales, however, have implemented mixed-sex toilets, in breach of the legislation.
Why segregated toilets are important
Many girls start menstruating in primary school and require privacy and space to be able to manage this. Sinks in a mixed-sex public space are not acceptable provision. Schools must ensure that they are providing adequate single-sex provision for girls and boys. Girls’ toilets should include sanitary disposal bins.
Period poverty is a real concern in this country. Girls who cannot afford to buy sanitary products are already missing school. It is not uncommon for girls to experience leakage when menstruating, and this can be acutely embarrassing for them. Menstruation stigma means that girls may be reluctant to use mixed-sex toilets and this could result in more girls missing school or even risking serious illness.
Research by Plan International UK shows that
- 49% of girls have missed an entire day of school because of their period;
- of those, 59% have made up a lie or an alternate excuse to cover the absence
- 71% of girls admitted that they have felt embarrassed buying sanitary products
- 48% of girls aged 14-21 in the UK are embarrassed by their periods
If girls feel too embarrassed to use mixed-sex toilets, they may avoid drinking during the school day, causing them to become dehydrated. They may also prefer to try to cope with a full bladder rather than use the toilets, potentially leading to bladder infections. ERIC, the children’s bowel and bladder charity, has a good explanation of the potential problems caused by not having adequate toilet provision in schools. The United Nations sustainable development goals refer to the importance of safe, clean toilets for girls and women.
We also know that sexual bullying is a real problem in some schools, with 5,000 cases recorded in three years. Allowing boys to share girls’ toilet facilities is likely to exacerbate this. Data shows that mixed-sex changing rooms, for example, create an additional risk of sexual assault for women.
Single sex spaces are also important for some observant religious groups. Before praying, Muslims perform ablutions and this cannot be done in a mixed sex space. Older Muslim girls who wear head coverings may also need to adjust them, but again this cannot be done in front of boys. It is important that an equalities impact assessment is done, and that this should include the impact on the protected characteristics of religion and of sex.
The answer to inclusive toilet provision must be one that meets the needs of all children and does not privilege the needs of one group over another. This requires real thought, innovative design and proper funding. We look forward to hearing how this can be done.
What can you do?
If your child’s school has plans to move to mixed sex provision and you have concerns about this, you should raise it with the Head Teacher.
You could email or ask for a meeting.
Questions to ask:
- What is the toilet provision in the school and is it in line with the School Premises Regulations (2012) as outlined in the Department of Education guidance ?
- Has the school consulted with students, staff and parents about the proposed change?
- Has the school carried out an impact assessment (especially in relation to the protected characteristic of sex) on the change as is required under the Equality Act?
- Is there adequate provision for all children to meet all their needs?
You might also like to ask some general questions about toilet provision in the school especially in relation to the needs of girls and young women.
- What rules are there about using the toilet during the day and are there any restrictions?
- Does the school provide free sanitary products for girls who need them?
- How does the school teach about menstruation and what is it doing to increase understanding and to reduce stigma?
If you are not happy with the answers you receive you should challenge the plans.
- Talk to other parents and their children
- Find some allies who will work with you
- Contact the Chair of Governors and ask to meet with her/him
- Contact the National Governance Association for advice
- Contact the local authority or the Chief Executive if your child’s school is run by academy chain or is part of a Multi-Academy Trust
- Contact the local press about your concerns
- Contact your MP and ask them to take up your concerns with the school on your behalf
For further guidance and information on how to raise the issue with schools see the Transgender Trend guidance
‘Gender neutral’ toilets in general
The law that applies to schools does not apply generally in society where there is no legal restriction to men and women using the same toilets. Culturally, however, this has been the status quo.
There is a lot of unease about the move to mixed sex toilets and many women – and men – do not want to share these facilities. A recent consultation by the City of London Corporation was heavily criticised and received 30,000 responses to its survey. The size of the response has resulted in the Corporation saying “Given the government consultation and the large number of responses to the City of London Corporation questionnaire, a report will be brought before the committee following the government’s response to its consultation.”
Our blog Gender neutral toilets don’t work for women is an excellent exploration of the history of public toilets in the UK and our failure to provide properly for women’s needs.
You could also read the Transgender Trend guidance for schools for more information