Toilets & Utopian Educational Futures…

I’ve been quiet on here recently – mainly because it’s been a really busy semester both teaching, and with the Around the Toilet project. There’s lots more information on the Around the Toilet blog, but here’s a bit of a summary, along with a recent talk I have given on Utopian Educations.

The summary:

In February we found out that we’d been given some more funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to extend the Around the Toilet project. We spent the money making:

  • Travelling Toilet Tales – an animated film which documents journeys taken/not taken due to in/accessible toilets.
  • Toilet Toolkit – an interactive website, which translates some of the stories collected in the project so far to practical design solutions for architects and design professionals.

Access to the film and toolkit will be available via the Around the Toilet blog soon. We hope they will be useful to those campaigning for more accessible toilet spaces and to influence design practice. Our next step is to think about how we can get these out and being used… we’ve got some ideas up our sleeves, but would love to hear from anyone with ideas!

People passing through Somerset House, London, last weekend were given a sneak preview of the film and toolkit, as we were invited to take part in a ‘Utopia Fair‘. Despite the fairly distopian mood following recent political events, we spent the weekend talking Utopian toilets to visitors and got some really exciting ideas, toilet stories, and positive feedback about the project.


Utopian Toilet Model Making at the Utopia Fair

I was also honoured to be invited to give a 5-minute provocation about what a utopian education could look like alongside Keri Facer, Professor of Educational and Social Futures, and Rachel Roberts, Director of the Phoenix Education Trust and democratic education campaigner. Here’s a picture of Keri and I during the discussion, and below I have included my full 5 minute provocation.


Keri Facer and I during the Utopian Educations discussion

The Talk:

What do we learn, not through formal teaching, but through the spaces that we inhabit and the things that are around us?

What do we learn if there are two toilet doors in our school – a pink one, with a princess on, and a blue one with a rocket on?

What do we learn when, because we like blue and rockets, we choose the blue, rocket toilet, and our teacher tells us off, because we are a girl, and have gone in the wrong toilet?

Do we learn that space, adventure and exploring, science and technology, are things for boys, and girls need to concentrate on being and looking pretty like a princess?

What do we learn if actually, we don’t identify as ‘boy’ or ‘girl’, ‘man’ or ‘woman’ and we’re not represented at all within the binary gender categories on the toilet door?

As a non-binary, or gender queer person (someone that doesn’t identify as a man or a woman), neither do we have a box to tick on a form asking for demographic information, when the only options that we are presented with are ‘male’ or ‘female’.

Neither is there a sports team that represents us in our local area.

What if the symbol on the toilet door that we’re taught to use is a blue wheelchair sign?

Do we feel separated from the ‘girl talk’ that’s happening with our peers in the ‘girl’s’ toilet around the corner (Allan, Smyth, l’Anson, & Mott, 2009)? Do we feel that aren’t understood as a girl?

What do we learn if we are a trans girl or woman, who neither feels safe or welcome in the woman’s toilet?

What if we need to use that accessible toilet, with a wheelchair symbol, because we need the extra space to change a colostomy bag, or we need to use the handrails, but actually we don’t use a wheelchair, so people shout at us, telling us that this isn’t the space for us?

Is this similar to the lesson that we learn when we go to university, to find that the lecture theatre is stepped? When all our new classmates, that we’re trying so hard to make friends with, move to the back, and we’re left on our own, looking like a geek at the front.

It’s not a very utopian picture that I’m painting, but as feminist, utopian scholar, Lucy Sargisson (2000) tells us, we can’t reimagine the future, without first critiquing the present.

So how could these things be different?

We learn what bodies and minds are meant to do and be, how they relate to identity, how we are positioned and understood in society, through the most mundane of spaces and circumstances.

We learn through TV and the media

through teen magazines

through aps which count calories and steps

through children’s toys,

through hills, slopes and cobbles that aren’t accessible to us

through the bodies that advertise ‘beach wear’ – or the cereals we’re meant to eat to get our ‘beach body’

through being told that by now our child should no longer have an imaginary friend

or that we’re meant to have learnt our 9 times tables before we leave primary school

through the ways that we internalise what it means to be a man, to be productive, to be useful.

How could these things be different, in my utopian land?

I am part of a project called Around the Toilet. In Around the Toilet, we’re thinking about how toilets can be different, to teach different, more inclusive, lessons about the people that are welcome in certain spaces.

And really, although we’re starting with the toilet, we’ve been led to think much more widely about the relationship between space, and what we learn about our bodies and identities.

We’ve found that gender neutral toilets can be beneficial for many, including non-binary, gender queer and other gender variant people, some trans people, some LGB and queer people, a parent with a child of a different gender, some disabled people, some people with carers or personal assistants of a different gender.

We’ve spoken to disabled parents about the importance of having accessible baby changing facilities. It is about architects and designers imagining their potential user group differently –  let’s assume that some disabled parents will be in this space, and structurally include them through toilet design.

Through the provision of accessible toilets, we learn different, more utopian lessons, about which bodies are welcome.

We’ve learnt from Disability Arts (e.g., who think of accessibility as something creative, rather than a bureaucratic, box-ticking exercise.

Places of education could learn from this – what do we lose when we teach children, young people and adults, in closed-off, age-based, exclusive environments?

What could it do to education, for example, to have BSL as a language embraced, and histories of Deaf culture explored, within school settings?

What would if mean if rather than learn implicit lessons of gender and sexuality through pictures of  slim, white and ‘able’, heterosexual couples, we were exposed to imagery much more inclusive of a whole range of bodies and ways of being?

What if disabled bodies, queer bodies, fat bodies, bodies of colour, bodies that have been continually taught that they don’t fit and aren’t ‘right’, were the bodies that we learnt from? Bodies that were welcomed as parents, teachers, dancers, artists?

A utopian education to me means thinking both inside and outside of formal learning institutions. It means listening to and learning from those currently marginalised. It means thinking about those implicit lessons that we’re currently taught, through the most mundane spaces and instances, about what bodies should do and be.


Allan, J., Smyth, G., l’Anson, J., & Mott, J. (2009). Understanding disability with children’s social capital. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 9(2), 115-121.

Sargisson, L. (2000). Utopian bodies and the politics of transgression. London: Routledge.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s