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Although there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to solve the problem of dirty toilets in schools, instilling good hygiene habits and cooperation from all sides can go a long way.

GONE are the days where Muhammad Aiman Hakimi Yusyairi had to put on a mask to keep away the unbearable stench of urine and faeces, which was enough to make him throw up whenever he entered the school toilet.

Such impressions have been totally flushed out of his mind and he will leave his primary school later this year with memories of a clean and dry toilet that have, in fact, become the talk of his peers in neighbouring schools.


“I no longer have to hold my breath when I enter the toilet nor do I control it (my bladder) until I reach home, because the school toilets are so much cleaner now,” he says.

How can we solve the issue of smelly school toilets? A facemask may mask the problem temporarily, but a long-term solution needs greater effort.

The authorities at the school he attends, SK Bandar Baru Sentul, decided that they had had enough of filthy toilets and embarked on a clean toilet programme to educate its pupils on basic hygiene and toilet etiquette two years ago.

“It was a crash course and teachers-in-charge went to every class and instilled in every pupil the need to be clean and hygienic,” says the school headmaster Abd Aziz Yahya.

“We also had to inculcate in them the need to respect school property, as pupils are indifferent and adapt a tidak apa (don’t care) attitude – especially of other people’s belongings.”

Wasting toilet paper drives up toilet maintenance costs.

Taking shoes off and changing into slippers provided by the school before entering a toilet may sound tedious to some, but is no big deal to the pupils.

“After implementing the clean toilet programme, we were surprised that the campaign also helped us save up to RM100 in monthly water bills,” says Abd Aziz.

“The floors are always clean and dry because there are no more muddy footprints. As a result, the cleaner uses less water and spends a shorter time cleaning the washroom,” he adds.

The school also provides shoe racks near the toilet entrance where the children are expected to arrange the slippers neatly after using them.

Anticipating that students might complain about not having a place for them to put their shoes back on, the school has secured some sponsorships to build a platform where students could sit.

A common problem in school is students using the toilet when it is out of order, often worsening its condition.

The school is perhaps one of a few schools that has take the initiative to organise a clean toilet campaign of such scale.

Cleaner toilets aside, says deputy headmistress Anna Mary Sebastian, cases of clogged toilet bowls are reduced to zero, making maintenance cheaper and easier.

Abd Aziz says the clean toilet campaign has helped his school save up to RM100 a month.

Another advantage, she points out, is that the cleaners can now use the time which would have been used to clean the toilets to focus on other chores around the school, thus improving their efficiency.

It is evident that the work of getting the entire school community to commit to the campaign was anything but simple, especially when it involves over 1,000 pre- and primary school pupils.

Likewise, if the public wants to see an improvement in our school toilets, commitment from all stakeholders to brainstorm and decide on potential solutions to solve the issue of dirty school toilets is crucial.

Poor student-toilet ratio

A research by hygiene specialist Rentokil Initial reveals that a single-sex secondary school in Perak has only 10 toilet cubicles for a student population of more over than 2,000. While another secondary school in Johor has only seven toilet cubicles for some 900 female students.

Lam says schools can run competitions to promote responsibility for shared facilities.

On the other hand, a primary school in Selangor has 43 toilet cubicles for its 827 female students and 43 cubicles for its 886 male students.

Universiti Putra Malaysia dean of architecture and design Assoc Prof Dr Osman Mohd Tahir says the student-toilet ratio is one of the issues that need to be addressed when looking for solutions to solve the issue of dirty school toilets.

The high usage doesn’t help either when the workmanship, lifespan and quality of the fittings are poor.

“Many people think toilets are secondary because how long can a toilet break be?

“But as we are moving towards becoming a developed country, we should be paying attention to the details of the design (of the toilet).”

Deputy Education Minister Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong, who is the chairman of 3K (cleanliness, health and safety in schools), describes the job of educating schoolchildren about toilet cleanliness as “not easy”.

Syed says students’ cooperation is vital to maintain clean toilets, even if the best contractors are hired.

“We have to constantly remind them about the importance of personal hygiene, as well as caring for the facilities provided for them,” he said.

Pointing out that some children can be “a little rough” when pulling the flush and end up breaking it after use, Dr Wee says developing civic consciousness is vital.

A common complaint by students is that the school toilets always stink, no matter how often the janitor cleans them.

“Toilet malodour can be defined in two categories – permanent and temporary,” says Rentokil Initial Malaysia managing director Carol Lam.

Permanent malodour, she says, is caused by bacteria deposits and encrustations in the urinal bowl and under the rim of the toilet bowl.

“They can only be eliminated through an efficient and regular treatment programme, combined with a good daily cleaning regime and the use of sanitiser, which is a unit that is installed directly into the flush pipe of the urinal bowl or WC. The sanitiser releases a measured dose of anti-bacterial solution into the flush water, which neutralises the bacteria.

“This solution will protect the surface of the urinal or WC from staining and it will also reduce smell in the toilet,” she says. Good ventilation in the toilet is also vital, Lam points out.

SK Bandar Baru Sentul pupils are required to take their shoes off and put on the slippers provided by the school before entering the toilet. It helps keep the toilets clean and dry.

Cleaning requires the knowledge of science, so Quality Restrooms Association of Malaysia (QRAM) branch development chairman Syed M. Jala says janitors should also be properly trained to ensure they are proficient at carrying out their cleaning duties.

“I’ve seen a janitor pop the mop into the toilet bowl, and then dry the areas beside the bowl with the same mop later. Little did the janitor know that her action could have infected the entire area,” he says.

In fact, school authorities like the headmaster should check and see if the janitor cleans the washroom properly and thoroughly.

Proper storage of the chemical substances in schools is strongly recommended as some of the detergents can smell like “strawberry”, a potential hazard for schoolchildren, says Syed.

Changing perceptions

The many suggestions put forward by various quarters only sound good on paper if students don’t change their perception and toilet habits.

“Changing people’s mindset is the hardest thing ever. You can get the best cleaning contractor but without students’ cooperation everything will go back to square one,” says Syed.

Universiti Putra Malaysia curriculum centre director Assoc Prof Dr Mohammad Shatar Sabran, whose area of specialisation is leadership and community development, concurs and says the best time for schools to conduct “toilet training” for young children is during the orientation.

The issue of dirty school toilet arises, he says, when some think there is no “real” need to educate school children about toilet etiquette as many see it as “common sense”.

“When schools want to implement a clean toilet programme, it must be result-oriented and they must not do it for the sake of doing it or merely following the Education Ministry’s instruction,” he says.

He also points out that sending out reminders at the weekly assembly on toilet cleanliness may not be effective enough to drive home the message.

“There is no one-size-fits-all kind of approach. So when educating primary schoolchildren about hygiene, for example, teachers could show the children the proper ways of using the toilet by conducting a mock-up demonstration or using animation,” he says.

This could be achieved by taking actions as small as “name change”, says Sebastian.

Understanding the importance of changing pupils’ perception, Abd Aziz has named his school toilets after flowers “mawar” and “anggerik” for girls’ and boys’ respectively.

This move is done in hopes that the positive connotation would help change pupils’ perception about dirty toilets, he says.

“The moment you mention the word ‘toilet’, it conjures up an image of dirty toilet bowl with foul smell. So when you give toilet a name that pupils could associate with flowers and fragrance, they, we hope, would do things differently,” Abd Aziz opines.

HELP University College head of psychology department and educational psychologist Kenneth Phun says parents could re-inforce good toilet habits by telling them the do’s and don’ts.

“Parents should teach them, for example, what not to discard into the bowl as well as the importance of leaving the toilet clean for the next user. They may begin by first giving children a demonstration of how to use a toilet responsibly i.e. how to position oneself over the bowl, how to use the hose and to avoid water from being sprayed onto the floor (if it’s a dry toilet) and so on,” he says.

If needed, he says, especially for younger children, parents can check the toilet after the child has used it to ensure he or she has left it clean, and to ask the child to clean it if it isn’t.

“This will instill personal responsibility, and don’t forget to give him a pat on the back if he has made effort to stick to the ‘agreement’,” he says.

For older children, Phun says parents could give the chore of cleaning the toilet to them so that they would appreciate the need to keep the toilet clean.

“This helps them understand that cleaning the toilet is nothing to be ashamed about, and do show them how you normally do it,” he says.

Lam says children should be taught about toilet etiquette.

“Let the students know that it is not only the school janitor’s job, but also the users’ responsibility to keep the toilets clean,” she says.

To cultivate a sense of belonging or ownership, some schools, Dr Wee says, has given the responsibility of maintaining the cleanliness to students.

“Enforcement alone is not enough, we also need to educate them at the same time,” he says.

Quality vs. price

While the lifespan of the toilet facilities is likely to be longer when there is proper maintenance, QRAM secretary-general Jamiah Ja’afar says the quality of the fittings also matters.

But equipping school toilets with durable, vandal-proof materials will result in high costs, as opposed to lower quality fittings that are easily broken, but cheaper to replace.

A broken flush, says Lam, is usually a result of high usage, vandalism, “rough” usage or poor product quality.

“We should select vandal-resistant products which would reduce the downtime, or use sensor flushes which helps reduce the possibility of being damaged,” she says.

School authorities are tired of the repeating efforts of removing graffiti in the school toilets.

Dr Osman says the use of graffiti-proof paint in school toilets could be considered.

“The graffiti-proof paint can help minimize the problem of vandalism. However, the cost is another problem that we need to take into consideration,” he says.

To curb vandalism, the Parent Action Group for Education (Page) chairman Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim suggests the installation of CCTV outside the washroom.

“When children know they are being watched, they are less likely to commit a misdeed,” she says.

Understanding the importance of cultivating a sense of belonging, Noor Azimah says schools could ask the classes to “adopt” the toilets.

“Empower the chidren and let them decorate the toilets. It’s about how much you take care of the things you love. When it’s unattractive and dirty, you would not care for it,” she says.

Commenting on the suggestion of asking teachers and children to share toilets so that teachers could identify and report faulty toilet, Jamiah says teachers could take up the role of educating but they shouldn’t be asked to monitor the cleanliness of the toilets.

“Their role is to teach, and not check for faulty pipes or overflowed tanks,” she says.

Many school authorities and parent-teacher associations are worried about funding,

“If funds are limited, the school can run some projects to raise funds and can get children (secondary), parents and teachers involved in a weekend clean-and-paint the school toilet project,” says Lam, who is also QRAM project chairman.

“To make this interesting, the school can run the cleanest toilet competition every quarterly to promote ownership and responsibility for shared facilities, like the school toilets. Many schools assign toilets by classes or the location of the toilets,” she says.




© Copyright of Quality Restroom Association of Malaysia (1859-05-5) QRAM 2013