Gabriel Chevallier’s Clochmerle is clearly not on the reading list at Bedale High School this term. If it were, the school’s management team may have been able to predict that a new toilet access policy might not have ended well. Instead, a policy designed to limit ‘free’ access to the toilets to specific time slots prompted a pupil protest, starting in the girls toilets, then spilling out on to the school playing field. The police were called; they determined, unsurprisingly that it wasn’t a matter for the police. The school responded by fixed term exclusion of some 38 pupils.
Local news agencies broke the story on Friday 10th March. The Harrogate Advertiser ran with Police called during student protest at Bedale High School. Richmondshire Today went with a no less descriptive headline: Students protest about toilet breaks at Bedale School. Predictably, the story made it to some of the Nationals, ensuring some unwanted, but warranted publicity for the school.
The protest was a response to recent changes in school rules which included altering the access arrangements to toilet facilities. The toilet access being one of a number of rule changes brought in by the school following a recent Ofsted inspection which concluded the school “requires improvement”. A statement from the school, issued on the day of the protest, appears to be an attempt to clarify the toilet policy. The statement also positions the school as reasonable, reducing the protesting pupils’ actions disrespectful disobedience, thus justifying the school’s actions in excluding the miscreants. Here is an extract:
“the school has reminded students that toilets are freely accessible during specific periods at lunchtime and break time but that students who need the toilet during lessons, or need access for medical reasons, will always be given access on request. Toilets are therefore accessible at all times.”
However, the wording of this statement, along with reports regarding the prosaic reality of this policy suggest something more problematic. It appears there are gradations of accessible referred to here. The school use the term ‘freely accessible’ when referring to the ‘time slots’ allocated for pupils to undertake acts of personal hygiene. News sources have reported that the toilets are ‘open access’ between 11.05 and 11.25. The school’s newsletter informs its pupils that the toilets will be open again from 13.10, five minutes before afternoon school starts. While the assertion that “toilets are therefore accessible at all times” appears to suggest that human rights are being upheld, there is something more going on here involving the control of pupils, their bodies, and expectations of discipline and obedience. Some reports suggest, that while the toilets may not be locked outside of these hours, pupils have to be escorted to the toilet. Perhaps, there is a specific job role here?
There are a number of perspectives we can use to make sense of what has occurred . From a Marxist perspective Bowles and Gintis (1976) suggest that the school functions to socialise children to thinking that hierarchies are normal and natural, and so learn to be obedient and subservient. Unable to negotiate a resolution the pupils turn to protest, for which they punished and reminded who is in charge, as the school reminds us:
“Unfortunately, a small group of students have attempted to undermine our work to improve the ethos at Bedale High School.”
According to Bowles and Gintis, schooling thus corresponds with the world of work. We could also look towards Foucault (1991) to consider the ways in which the school timetable operates as a disciplinary mechanism. Time is used to regulate the body, and the body becomes the target of power. In short, the school toilet is a site of spatial politics (Millei and Imre, 2016) where children are trained and civilised (Elias, 1978).
Another problematic aspect of this incident was the report that some pupils could claim access to the toilets at any time, for medical reasons on production of a ‘medical card’. If true this is a peculiar form of inclusive practice in the sense that it calls out the disabled, or ‘leaky’ body as requiring ‘special’ treatment, a theme that is explored in more detail by Slater et al (2016). A dose of dis/ability studies and training in non-discriminatory practice might be in order.
Finally, this display of pupil protest is not unique, there are a wealth of examples from the history of pupil protests and strikes, many in response to punitive actions and material conditions in schools and classrooms. These could have been studied to inform a more dialogic process and productive resolution. Teachers, study your own history.