Auckland school's removal of soap from children's toilets labelled 'appalling' by public health professor

An Auckland primary school has dumped a policy that saw soap and hand towels removed from all children's toilets.

So what's behind the move, as washing your hands with soap and water stops the spread of germs? Source: Fair Go

The school felt the children were wasting those basic items, but failed to follow some of the most basic health advice with its policy.

"I think it's appalling", said Dr Michael Baker, who is the University of Otago Professor of Public Health.

Hand washing is widely regarded by public health experts as a crucial and simple measure to help prevent childhood diseases like strep throat, rheumatic fever, gut infections and skin infections, all of which are a source of absenteeism from school and hospital admissions for children.

"We've got good evidence in big trials showing that having hand washing can actually reduce risk of gut infections by about 30 per cent and respiratory infections by about 20 per cent so I think all of our schools need to be part of this," Dr Baker told Fair Go.

Parents contact Fair Go over school withdrawing soap

Fair Go was contacted by four parents of children at the school who objected to the school withdrawing soap but had been told by teachers this was the policy.

Some had simply accepted this and started sending their children to school with little bottles of liquid hand soap to use.

However, one took her concerns to the principal and to a school board member.

Fair Go has seen written messages between the board member and the parent which say: "There are no legal requirements from the Ministry of Health and the students were wasting the soap and hand towels so they were taken out but every class has hand sanitiser that they encourage their kids to use regularly."

Fair Go spoke with the principal, who disclosed that classrooms were sometimes locked at lunchtimes, meaning children had no access to anything but water for washing before meals and after using toilets.

The principal told Fair Go that the same week our programme had made contact, the school board had decided to reverse the policy and will now stock toilets with soap and hand towels again.

On that basis, Fair Go has decided for now not to name the school publicly as it takes steps to make good its commitment to provide hygienic hand washing facilities for children.

The principal was asked to explain why the policy had persisted for some months and possibly for years according to one parent, despite their objections.

Ministry of Education responds

The principal insists only one parent had raised the matter, earlier this year. The principal has not said how long the policy was in place or what advice made it credible, so Fair Go put the matter to the Ministry of Education.

Deputy Secretary Katrina Casey told Fair Go the principal had only made contact about its no-soap rule last week.

"We advised the school that soap and clean water is required for hand washing as stated in the Ministry of Health guidelines."

Those guidelines make no reference to hand sanitiser as a viable substitute.

Ms Casey's statement points out staff checked back four years and found no other request for advice on hand washing or scrapping soap when her staff looked back four years.

Parents say they are glad of the change, but are upset they have been criticised by the principal and other parents at the school, simply for raising concerns publicly when so much is at stake.

'Lots of sick children'

A school newsletter from June noted there were “lots of sick children, especially with strep throat" and sickness that was leaving some classes with no teacher.

The warning discussed avoiding food sharing and better use of water fountains but made no mention of hand washing.

The advice health experts swear by is regular hand washing before eating, after using the toilet and any other time hands are soiled.

Soap, water and a paper towel are the best combo, with 20 seconds of lathering up before rinsing and crucially, up to 20 seconds of good drying to remove all the moisture.

"New Zealand's got an appalling record of having very high rates of a lot of major childhood diseases - respiratory infections, skin infections and gut infections and these are exactly the things that hand washing can protect our children against," Dr Baker said.

Fair Go's advice is for parents to take a look at their own school's facilities and reassure themselves their children have the essentials on hand at school.