Too thirsty for
Pupils at Westdene bring water bottles to school
by Sean Coughlan, BBC News Online education staff,
October 8, 2002
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Can you imagine spending every day at work with a hangover?
That is the nearest adults will come to the feelings of
dehydration experienced by children who have little access to
water during the school day.
So says a campaigner who argues that learning is being damaged
by a simple lack of water in classrooms.
Low fluid intake causes headaches, poor concentration,
And a project in Brighton is examining whether a bottle of
water could be schools' secret weapon in improving test
Hilary Reed, a teacher with the Brighton and Hove learning
support service, says that dehydration is contributing to
academic underachievement and poor behaviour.
"Day after day, I come across tired, lethargic and irritable
children, unable to concentrate - often due to dehydration,"
"I also witness a succession of children going into the school
sick-room with stomach aches and headaches, mostly all
'curable' with a drink of water."
Hilary Reed says it is "outrageous" that children do not have
access to water
And putting this theory to the test is a project in Brighton
in which pupils are being allowed free access to water
throughout the day - and are encouraged to drink more water at
This School Water Policy is in place in two-thirds of the
local authority's primary schools and it is also to be
implemented in a secondary school.
Later this month, research will begin to see whether this has
any beneficial impact on behaviour and performance.
Water on demand
Pupils have their own water bottles on their desks at school,
from which they can drink whenever they want.
Most provide their own bottled water, or sports bottles which
can be topped up from the tap. But sponsors are also providing
free bottles, so that all pupils can participate.
The intention is to make sure that children get nearer to the
1.5 litres of water needed every day by five year olds and the
1.75 litres needed by 10 year olds.
Children need more than 1.5 litres of water every day
Without this water, Hilary Reed says that there is a pattern
of lethargy, temper tantrums and illness.
And after about a fortnight of increasing water intake, she
says that there are visible improvements, such as greater
alertness, particularly in the afternoon.
"I've seen the benefits," says Debbie Crossingham, head
teacher of Westdene Primary School in Brighton, which is
taking part in the project.
In her teaching career, she says she has seen how dehydration
can contribute to headaches and other sickness problems.
"I'm sure that increasing access to water can also help in
improving results, along with other factors."
Drinking water at times such as after the lunchtime break can
help pupils cool down and calm down, she says.
And an awareness of the need for water can also help teachers
avoid headaches (adults should be drinking two litres of water
Pupils at Westdene Primary School seemed ready to accept this
water-friendly approach, swigging away at their bottles and
saying that it was much healthier than the fizzy drinks aimed
at their age group.
Although they were also clearly aware of the advertising and
strong images associated with fizzy drinks.
Hilary Reed, who has been teaching for 28 years, says that she
has seen a two-fold problem emerging with a lack of water.
Head teacher Debbie Crossingham says there are observable
benefits to giving more water
The amount of water available to pupils has diminished - with
many water fountains in schools around the country not working
or inadequate for the numbers of pupils.
This means that pupils can spend the school day without any
And she says that filling this thirst gap has been the rise in
fizzy drinks, which bring other problems for health and
At home, she says that many more younger children are using
"adult" drinks such as tea and coffee, which in terms of
rehydration are not as effective as water.
As many as a fifth of pupils drink no plain water at all, she
says, which in the long term could have serious consequences
The School Water Policy is a "humanitarian issue", she says,
which at relatively little expense could have a positive
impact on schools.
"When you see Tony Blair speaking on a platform, he always has
a bottle of water beside him. Why can't children have the
same? It is outrageous that they do not have access to water."
And she highlights that this low-tech, simple scheme is far
less difficult and expensive to implement than the
introduction of information technology. "It is so basic, such
"It has been possible to put a computer into every classroom,
but not a bottle of water," she says.
She also says that there has been a failure from the
Department for Education and Skills to promote the importance
of access to water.
Pressure on budgets means that schools might not prioritise
the repair or installation of water fountains.
And Hilary Reed argues that there should be an obligation to
provide such facilities and a separate budget available to
cover the cost.
In response, the Department for Education says that its
"Healthy Schools Guidance is aimed at encouraging schools to
be safe, secure and healthy environments... Rather than being
too prescriptive, the guidance empowers schools to make
decisions which are right for them."
And it says that its guidance to school caterers "contains the
Secretary of State's strong recommendation that drinking water
should be available to all pupils every day, free of charge".
There have been previous experiments which suggest that
hydrating the brain really does improve results.
Pupils at Corstorphine School in Edinburgh, who were drinking
water throughout the primary school day, saw improvements in
And in Yorkshire a water in schools project has followed the
success of a pilot scheme in Leeds.