Bee Wilson

More water issues: staying cool at school is a serious business

An NS reader, David Browning, recently raised the question of drinking water in schools. "Some Health Action Zones," he wrote, "have discovered that many schools no longer supply drinking-water, even at lunchtime. Gone are the jugs and glasses, replaced by bottled water being sold at the serving hatch."

Browning is right and his complaints are not the half of it. Despite a legal requirement to provide drinking water to their pupils, recent research shows that almost 10 per cent of schools have no drinking facilities at all. But even where the lunchtime jugs and glasses are still brought out, the problem is far from solved. A single beaker of (often lukewarm and unpalatable) water at lunchtime is not enough to hydrate a child's body throughout the school day. Increasingly, evidence from health professionals links dehydration to bad behaviour and loss of concentration in the classroom (something schools just might want to minimise), not to mention headaches, constipation, urinary tract infections and, perhaps surprisingly, bed-wetting (a child who doesn't drink all day will stretch their shrunken bladder when they finally quench their thirst at night).

In 50 per cent of schools, the only water facilities are drinking fountains in the loos. Professor David Hall, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, calls this "almost barbaric". Would you like to get your water hunched in an undignified way over a toilet-infected spout? The metal nozzle festers with the germs of a hundred other mouths and may actually harbour meningitis. The water supply is usually turned very low, to avoid messy spurting. This creates the overall impression that you are sucking up your own dribble. In order to get the equivalent of two or three small glasses of water, you would have to return to the "fountain" (a misnomer, if ever there was one) no fewer than ten times. But you won't. Because, if you are in any way socially vulnerable, you will steer clear of the toilets, on account of the hovering school bullies. For many children, it seems safer neither to ingest nor to expel water while at school.

Dr Trevor Brocklebank, a consultant paediatrician at Leeds University, recently did a survey of children, "girls in particular", whom he had treated for urinary tract infections. Sixty per cent of those he questioned hadn't gone to the lavatory at all at school on the previous day. Fifty per cent of children said they didn't drink anything at school.

Yet most schools still forbid children to bring their own bottles of water into the classroom. A national campaign called Water is Cool in School is trying to get them to change their minds. Here's the idea. Each child has a plastic bottle on their desk. They either fill it from water-coolers provided by the school (a year's unlimited supply of filtered water costs only £250) or replenish it at home. During classes, they are free to sip from it when they like.

Nickie Brander, the campaign organiser, is especially concerned with urinary problems in children. But the scheme is also a tool, first, for reducing child obesity, and second, for enabling schools to give a more consistent message on nutrition. Yet when Brander began her crusade in 2000, she received a "negative reaction" from the Departments of both Health and Education. Their attitude, she says, was: "Hang on, this is trivial, children are not dying from dehydration in this country . . ." In which case, why not remove all the water-coolers from Portcullis House and let them brave the bullies in the toilets.

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