The crucial link between hygiene and academic success among South African learners

Desks in classrooms are high-touch areas where bacteria and germs can grow, especially if pupils eat or drink at them. Picture: Fatima Yusuf/Pexels

Desks in classrooms are high-touch areas where bacteria and germs can grow, especially if pupils eat or drink at them. Picture: Fatima Yusuf/Pexels

Published Jun 10, 2024


Schools are meant to be a safe and healthy environment for pupils to learn and grow but, unfortunately, they can also be a breeding ground for germs and bacteria.

With so many pupils, teachers, and staff members coming and going throughout the day, it’s no surprise that some areas of a school are dirtier and more germ-infested than others.

In South Africa, recent research has shed light on the pivotal role of hygiene practices in enhancing the health, academic performance, attendance rates, and overall school environment among learners across the country.

Proper hygiene habits are not only essential for physical well-being but also play a vital role in academic success and fostering a conducive learning atmosphere.

Detrimental effects of lack of hygiene

According to a report published by Unicef in 2023, 600 million children around the world lack access to safe drinking water, 1.1 billion children lack safe sanitation, and 689 million children lack basic hygiene services.

Unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is still responsible for the deaths of around 400,000 children under the age of five each year, or 1,000 every day.

Effective hygiene practices like regular handwashing, proper sanitation, and maintaining clean surroundings have been linked to reduced illness and improved overall health among learners.

A study conducted in Johannesburg highlighted a direct correlation between good hygiene and increased academic performance, with students who adhere to proper hygiene routines showing higher levels of concentration and cognitive function in classrooms.

Cleanliness also plays a crucial role in learners’ mental well-being. Picture: Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz /Pexels


Restrooms are among the most infamous bacterial hotspots in any public place, including schools. High-touch surfaces like door handles, taps and toilet seats can house bacteria and viruses, while dirty floors and overflowing rubbish can add to an unclean environment.

To address these challenges, schools should employ regular and comprehensive cleaning processes in their bathrooms.

Computer keyboards

Modern education relies heavily on computers, but they can also be a source of germs and bacteria. Computer keyboards can harbour harmful pathogens, including staphylococcus and streptococcus, because they are a high-touch surface.

Regularly cleaning and disinfecting computer keyboards can help reduce infection risks.

Classroom desks

Desks in classrooms are high-touch areas where bacteria and germs can grow, especially if pupils eat or drink at them.

Additionally, students might put their hands or heads down on their desks, which can spread bacteria to their faces and other surfaces. Regular cleaning and sanitising of classroom desks can help reduce the risk of illness.

Health and hygiene benefits

Available research indicates that learners in clean schools have higher attendance rates, fewer sick days, and enhanced cognitive abilities, leading to better academic outcomes.

Maintaining a clean school environment is vital for preventing the spread of germs and reducing illnesses.

A study conducted by the American Journal of Public Health found that schools with proper hygiene practices experienced a significant decrease in absenteeism rates due to infectious diseases, ultimately allowing learners to remain focused on their studies.

Improved concentration and productivity

Learners' ability to focus can be hampered by distracting, messy classroom environments.

School cleaners and cleaning services create an environment that supports concentration, productivity, and successful learning by making sure classrooms and common areas are regularly clean and tidy.

Positive impact on mental well-being

Cleanliness also plays a crucial role in learners’ mental well-being. A clean and well-maintained school environment fosters a sense of pride, belonging and overall satisfaction among pupils.

It reduces stress levels, promotes positive behaviour, and creates a conducive atmosphere for personal and academic grow

Besides enhancing academic outcomes, maintaining good hygiene practices has been found to boost attendance rates, contributing to a more consistent and uninterrupted learning experience.

By reducing the spread of illnesses and infections, schools can create a healthier environment that minimises absenteeism and ensures learners can fully benefit from their education.

However, despite the clear benefits associated with effective hygiene practices, several challenges hinder efforts to maintain cleanliness among school children in South Africa.

Limited access to clean water and sanitation facilities in some regions poses a significant barrier to promoting proper hygiene habits.

Additionally, a lack of awareness about the importance of hygiene and inadequate resources for maintaining cleanliness, further complicate efforts to uphold high standards of sanitation in schools.

Addressing hygiene in schools

To address these challenges and promote a culture of good hygiene, learners, educators, and parents play a crucial role in implementing practical solutions.

Regular education and awareness campaigns about the significance of hygiene practices can help instil good habits from a young age.

Simple practices such as handwashing with soap, proper waste disposal, and cleaning shared spaces can go a long way in reducing the risk of illness transmission.

Educators can integrate hygiene education into the curriculum and provide resources like hand sanitisers and soap to encourage learners to uphold cleanliness standards.

Parents can reinforce these teachings at home by promoting healthy hygiene habits and ensuring their children have access to basic hygiene necessities.

Learners, on the other hand, can actively participate in maintaining a clean environment by taking responsibility for their personal hygiene and raising awareness among their peers.

The relationship between hygiene and academic success is undeniable, with good hygiene practices playing a vital role in shaping the well-being and educational outcomes of learners in South Africa.

By addressing the challenges that hinder cleanliness and collectively prioritising hygiene education and implementation, stakeholders can create a healthier and more conducive school environment for all.