New management model needed for school toilets

By: Water Research Commission (WRC)

What are some of the major challenges facing sanitation in South African schools?

School toilets often end up as the ‘Cinderella’ of school infrastructure – a part of the school neglected and hidden from view, and often in appalling condition. And yet, toilets are intended to meet one of learners’ most basic, unavoidable physical needs. So, if school toilets aren’t structurally safe or hygienic, they can pose a threat to kids’ health, dignity and even their lives – and these dangers can compromise their ability to learn.

School ToiletsBarbara Louton from Partners in Development (PID) gives guidelines on how to alleviate these challenges based on her ongoing research project funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC) entitled Evaluating the design of existing rural school sanitation infrastructure and developing a model and guidelines for optimal design.

Keeping learners safe from harm
According to Louton, the first priority in school sanitation is that toilets are structurally safe for learners to use. If schools have pit latrines that were not built properly or have slabs that have become rusted, rotten or broken, there can be a danger of them collapsing while a child is using them.

Another concern is that small children could fall through the toilet seat into the pit as the toilet pedestals do not take into consideration different sizes. What can the Department of Education (DoE) and schools do to ensure that toilets are not a threat to children’s lives?

  • Structurally unsound toilets must be replaced.
  • Technologies where the user doesn’t sit over the pit (like pour flush or low flush toilets) or where the pit is shallow (like urine diversion) should be recommended.
  • Infrastructure must be well-managed to remain safe. Many schools don’t have the knowledge and skills to be able to manage their toilets safely so a partnership is needed between the DoE and its schools to build capacity to monitor and enforce safety practices.
  • Inspect each toilet weekly to ensure that any safety issues are picked up before they become serious.
  • The school governing body must assume responsibility for attending to all safety repairs without delay, whether by arranging for skilled members of the school community to complete the repairs, contracting a technician or liaising with the DoE for repairs to be done by the department.
  • Make sure that learners are not allowed to use any toilet that has the potential to collapse. Either close the stall securely until the toilet is repaired or, if a block of toilets is too damaged to be repaired, make sure that the toilets are destroyed without delay so that no one uses them.
  • Installing urinals for both boys and girls gives children the option of avoiding the risks associated with pit toilets most of the time. 
  • Smaller pedestals with smaller holes should be built for smaller learners so they cannot fall into the toilet. 
  • Staff should be present when small learners use standard-size pit latrines to ensure that they are safe.

Some of the key findings of the study were that infrastructure and management of school toilets are somehow interlinked. Infrastructure, no matter how well designed and constructed at the time of handover, will not fare well if not managed effectively. The research also showed many children have fears of falling into latrines and also indicates that school pedestals should cater for different age groups. The research also proposed a new management model for school toilets which they are busy piloting.

Read the full feature in Plumbing Africa March 2016, page 39.

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