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Experts identify 'National Curriculum blind spot' on teaching infants to wash their hands properly

17 December 2013

British children are failing to learn proper hand hygiene habits at an early stage in their lives due to lack of time, cost and poor facilities in nursery, pre- and primary schools and little emphasis on teaching good hand washing in the National Curriculum.

This is the conclusion of an expert panel organised recently by Kimberly-Clark Professional.

The round table event, which brought together early years education experts, was designed to raise awareness of a curriculum blind-spot on hand hygiene in nurseries, pre- and primary schools, and unveil new research commissioned by Kimberly-Clark Professional.

The research identified that while teaching professionals recognise the importance of hand hygiene in preventing the spread of germs and illness among children, there are a number of serious obstacles to best practice in UK nurseries, pre- and primary schools.

The key issues preventing good hand hygiene outlined by teachers taking part in the research included time (45%), cost (27%), poor/lack of facilities (6%) and lack of staff (5%).

When asked to describe what respondents saw as "inadequate facilities” in schools, teachers identified a shortage of wash basins, queues at busy periods, limited supplies of soap, poorly maintained facilities that are unpleasant to use, and water at the wrong temperature.

The round table event took place with germs high on the news agenda, after the government's chief medical officer for England described the nation’s growing resistance to antibiotics as a "ticking time bomb.”

The importance of teaching hand hygiene early so that it becomes a habit cannot be underestimated, the panel concluded, as teaching children in early years’ education to wash their hands properly would greatly help to combat the spread of minor illnesses, such as colds and stomach bugs.

Germs are highly transmissible in the school environment with children playing and learning closely together. Every day thousands of children are off school due to the minor illnesses that are spread by poor hand hygiene.  Hands are the "transmission superhighways” of germs, said panellist Professor Sally Bloomfield, a leading hygiene and infectious diseases expert. 

Professor Bloomfield said:  "A robust approach to hand hygiene is the single most effective way of managing transmission of avoidable illness. It is also an important way of tackling the problem of antibiotic resistance. We have to find ways to reduce the amount of antibiotics we use and we can do this by reducing the need for antibiotic prescribing through good health practices.”

The round table panel, held in London, also brought together leading figures in early years’ education such as Pete Mountstephen, chair of the National Primary Heads (NPH) and Maureen Crandles, director of the Melville Street Nursery which won the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA’s) Nursery of the year in Scotland and the UK in 2013.

Kimberly-Clark Professional’s research shows that 63% of school teachers who had concerns about absenteeism would like to improve their school’s hand hygiene practices and routines so that they can reduce the amount of time that children and staff are off sick, and therefore make a positive impact on the school’s performance as a whole.  Implementing this change will not be easy, however, with teachers and schools facing many challenges in educating children about the importance of hand hygiene – not least because budgets have been cut and facilities are not always particularly sanitary, panellists reported.

With Government concerned about the threat of antibiotic resistance and ongoing fears about the possibility of a flu pandemic, teaching children about hand hygiene and preventing the spread of germs is a vital priority, Professor Bloomfield outlined at the panel event.  "We need to stop telling ourselves we are too clean for our own good”, Bloomfield noted.

"Teaching children about hand hygiene and preventing the spread of germs is a vital priority, said Dr Louise Vickerman, education manager, Kimberly-Clark Professional.  "Good hygiene practices, such as regular hand washing with soap and warm water, is proven to greatly reduce the spread of common illnesses such as coughs and stomach bugs in educational environments,” she added.

There are currently no specific Government regulations covering washrooms or hand-related hygiene in nurseries, pre-schools and primary schools in England.