During the academic year June – July 2018, Flourish conducted a small piece of qualitative research on behalf of The Hygiene Bank to explore the experiences and impact of hygiene poverty in schools – on children, families and school staff – in order to further develop their work in schools. Findings confirmed that the right to be clean is a fundamental physiological need; it’s paramount to our physical and mental health. It can have a great and long lasting impact on the development of school aged children, something that is being noticed more and more recently by teaching professionals in the UK.
According to Qualitative Research carried out this Summer * Teachers and Teaching Assistants in UK Primary Schools have noted an increase in regularly un-washed uniforms, with young children returning day after day with the same soiled underwear. Poor dental hygiene is also a big issue on the increase, with teachers having to supply toothbrushes or being aware of Primary aged children having baby teeth removed due to rotting.
Secondary school teachers are becoming increasingly concerned about the need for showers, believing that this is due to a lack of toiletries and/or washing facilities in the home.
The attempt to mask body odour with deodorants and in particular by girls, to wear excessive make up in an attempt to disguise un-washed uniforms is becoming more common place in UK Secondary Schools.
Teachers were asked why they felt that they were seeing more and more hygiene poverty in their schools. All agreed that Hygiene Poverty didn’t seem to exist on its own and that it was an indication to them that were much larger problems going on at the same time.
One key cause was noted by teachers repeatedly, the preceding years of austerity and cuts to public services taking their toll. They also felt that the introduction of Universal Credit, the Bedroom Tax and the uncertain economic issues surrounding Brexit meant families were generally struggling more than they were a decade ago.
Many teachers mentioned that not only were they personally providing class room supplies such as stationary items but were also setting up internal food banks and second hand uniform sales because many parents were struggling to afford the basics.
Many teachers also referred to the upturn in demands placed on them for additional mental and emotional support. They reported that the closure of local Sure Start centres coupled with the general stretch of social services, meant that they were being turned to for counselling despite not having adequate training. They were also not confident in local support services when they did refer families for assistance due to the lack of resources.
All this meaning a delay or total absence of vital support being provided. With the larger issues not being managed, the knock on effects such as hygiene poverty continue to escalate.
Aside from the obvious discomfort of poor hygiene, teachers also indicated further physical impacts of hygiene poverty for children. Many noted that hygiene was a basic need and with it not being met, children were more prone to illness and physical ailments.
They were also concerned that it limited opportunities, with children deliberately missing out on exercise through playtime games and PE lessons, as they were too embarrassed to sweat and change their clothes.
The social impacts of hygiene poverty are also seen by teachers in their classrooms. With children being isolated and bullied by their peers due to body odour and unwashed clothing. Some teachers reported their attempts to plan lessons around this issue, with less group work and more individual tasks, so these children could take part and were not excluded.
Many teachers also noted the long lasting emotional impact that hygiene poverty can have on school children. They mentioned that embarrassment and shame caused these children to have low self esteem and low confidence. They often saw this expressed through behavioural problems with children feeling angry at their circumstances.
The academic effects that hygiene poverty has on school children are a cumulative consequence of those reported above. Poor concentration, anxiety and disengagement mean that academic progress is impeded with many not reaching their true potential.
One way to assist schools and teachers with the increase in hygiene poverty for children, is to have a consistent supply of toiletries accessible to families. Where these items are made available to all, it would remove the suggestion of embarrassment or shame for individuals. Children and parents could access these items when in need and the pressure on individual teachers would be relieved.
With school cuts as they are, fundraising efforts are largely focussed on educational needs and material resources. Teachers felt that re-directing fundraising towards toiletries or increasing requests to accommodate it, could be detrimental to both the school and its families.
This is where organisations like the Hygiene Bank, can step in and provide donations. Items such as hairbrushes, deodorants, toothpaste, nit shampoos and washing powder are key products in demand.
In addition, holding con
siderate discussions in PSHE lessons on personal hygiene, from the basics of hand washing through to puberty and self-care would be beneficial. Here the spontaneous mention of the freely available toiletries could be made, giving more confidence to teachers when approaching those they feel would benefit the most from the donations.
The involvement of organisations like the Hygiene Bank has become increasingly more significant, due to the growing problem of hygiene poverty in UK schools over the last decade. Where resources and funding is lacking, the Hygiene Bank can step in and not only help children get hold of much needed toiletries but make a difference to their lives.
Regular access via donations can help alleviate the effects of hygiene poverty on children and allow them to more fully engage with their education, peers and relieve some of the emotional distress they may be experiencing.
*Information taken from a Qualitative Research study conducted by Flourish on behalf of the Hygiene Bank June-August 2019.*