By Deirdre Johnston
We keep hearing that Sir Keir Starmer wants to protect single-sex spaces. Well, now that he’s scented a general election on the horizon, he’s suddenly decided that 100% of women actually don’t have a penis and only women have a cervix. Funny that.
I (along with many other women) need to know if these are just empty words, or if he has had a Damascene conversion. If it is the latter, then surely all Labour candidates will be fully on board too?
I decided to put this to the test.
On Tuesday 23rd January I took a trip to Abergavenny to ask questions of the Labour candidate for Monmouthshire, Catherine Fookes, in the upcoming general election. The questions were about toilets in schools in Wales. A major school rebuild is taking place in that area and rumour has it that single-sex toilets are an afterthought in the build, consigned to a far-off corner of the school, where weary girls will need to undertake a long trek if they don’t want to use the main, mixed-sex provision.
Gone are the days when children and teenagers of both sexes could confidently use their school toilets in guaranteed privacy and with dignity. In this brave new world of inclusivity, schools are on a mission to install mixed sex toilets in all new builds and to ensure that, in older buildings, mixed sex toilets are accessible to all students. In essence this means that any student can use any toilet and it is a safeguarding nightmare for schools. Women’s Rights Network is determined to amplify the dangers of this policy on school toilets and are working to raise awareness throughout the UK.
At the meeting, I asked Ms Fookes if she supported single-sex toilets in schools and did she agree that schools should comply with the law and provide these facilities. Her response was that Keir Starmer had expressed his support for single-sex spaces. Typical politician deflection and it didn’t answer my question. So I ploughed on and asked whether she knew if the school re-build, King Henry VIII, in Abergavenny was going to comply with the law and provide single-sex toilets. Her response to that was that she was sure there would be single-sex toilets but she would enquire and get back to me.
I have followed up on this commitment but, to date, radio silence from Ms Fookes.
I informed Ms Fookes that we had hard evidence that at least 15% of Welsh schools, who responded to a freedom of information request, had only mixed sex toilets. I told her that these schools are breaking the law. I could see from her expression that this surprised her, which begs the question – why on earth don’t the political representatives who represent us, or want to represent us actually know this?
I outlined for her why single-sex toilets are important for all pupils but, in particular, for teenage girls. I quoted from Estyn’s (Welsh equivalent of Ofsted) report in December 2021 on sexual harassment among secondary school pupils in Wales, which stated that a majority of female pupils (61%) report having personal experience of sexual harassment and many (82%) report seeing others experience it.
Ms Fookes response to this was disappointingly blasé. She said that sexual harassment happened everywhere, even in Parliament! I’m not saying Ms Fookes was excusing sexual harassment as a minor nuisance but her response was, in my opinion, glib and political deflection. I was very disappointed.
We finished our conversation with Ms Fookes assuring me that she would take on board WRN’s concerns around mixed sex toilets in schools and that she was almost sure all schools in Monmouthshire complied with the law around school toilets.
I was not reassured. My takeaway from this short meeting with Ms Fookes was that school toilets are nowhere near her radar which translates, for me, to neither are girls' safeguarding or dignity anywhere near her radar. Not nearly good enough. And if Keir Starmer really wants to reassure women that he now sees the importance of protecting single-sex spaces, then this is not a good sign for him.
I encourage WRN members to approach their public representatives and let them know that this is an issue of major concern to many people. I will certainly bring it up on the doorstep when canvassing for the election starts. Will you?