Tackling period poverty: Secondary school roll-out

Written by: Chris Brown | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In an average classroom of 30, two girls will miss school due to period poverty. The government has now agreed to fund free sanitary products in schools to help end period poverty. Chris Brown looks at what the research says and how schools might approach implementation

Period poverty is the term used to describe the inability to afford or access sanitary products.

The #freeperiods campaign, which was launched by student Amika George two years ago, estimates that more than 137,700 children in the UK have missed school because of period poverty.

It highlights that menstrual products cost women £13 a month and that 40 per cent of UK girls say they have used toilet roll because they cannot afford period products.

Furthermore, one in seven girls struggle to afford sanitary wear and one in 10 are unable to pay for these essential products, according to 2017 research from charity Plan International UK.

The research, which involved 1,000 young women aged 14 to 21, also found that half have missed an entire day of school because of their period, of which six in 10 lied or made up an excuse to cover their absence (SecEd, 2019).

And independent research commissioned by Phs Group (2019) has revealed that nearly 40 per cent of school girls believe period poverty holds girls back from doing well in their education.

This research, which involved 1,000 girls aged 13 to 18, found that more than half said they have missed school because of their period. They missed an average of three days a term. Of these, one in 14 said their absence was a result of being unable to afford or access sanitary products. This means that in an average classroom of 30, two girls will miss school due to period poverty.

In a bid to tackle period poverty, the UK government has announced funding for every primary school, secondary school and college in England to provide free sanitary products for pupils (DfE, 2019). This is to be rolled out from early next year.

The Department for Education (DfE) will publish guidance later this year to make clear how schools and colleges can get access to the products, which will include environmentally friendly pads and reusable products such as reusable pads.

This comes after the Welsh government announced in April a £2.3 million Period Dignity Grant for Schools to provide free of charge products via local authorities. And last year, the Scottish government implemented a directive for educational establishments to offer free period products, boosted by an additional £4 million of funding to expand the scheme in January.

Across the UK, there is a mix of strategies. While some local authorities have managed their own funding and are overseeing the distribution of sanitary products, others have passed on autonomy along with funding to individual schools. At a school level, some have received grants or charitable donations through initiatives such as the Red Box Project or funded free products themselves.

The important thing to remember is that there is no wrong approach to tackling period poverty. As we come closer to a national roll-out where free products at schools become standard across the UK, we need to be prepared to make sure this drive has maximum impact.

The good news is that free sanitary provisions at schools should be well received with over three quarters of school girls supporting this proposal according to the Phs Group research.

However, the risk of keeping products stored away is that they do not reach their intended recipients (in our survey, six per cent of school girls reported that their school already has free products but they do not know how to access them). And while periods should be something we can all talk openly about, it remains a taboo subject, with only 10 per cent of girls saying they would not be embarrassed to ask for sanitary products or to talk about periods with someone else.

So while 46 per cent of girls support the suggestion of having free products available at school reception or by asking the school nurse, this could potentially be a barrier.

Another popular distribution method is by populating washrooms with baskets of free products, something supported by a third of girls. This is a quick and easy solution which can be implemented almost immediately. Of course, it does have its drawbacks due to the risk of products getting wet or contaminated. With no controlled access, the entire basket could be emptied at once and there is also a concern about abuse and misuse.

What is likely to be more common are coin-free washroom vending machines, backed by 52 per cent of teenage girls, which dispense products freely whenever they are needed, conveniently and discreetly.

Having worked with schools who already offer free products openly within washrooms, there was an understandable concern that these would be abused with a need to replenish supplies constantly. However, in my experience, this has not been the case. While some have seen an initial surge in demand for products, it has quickly settled down once pupils realise these products will always be available, removing the novelty and quickly establishing a level of trust.

It does not matter whether they are needed because the recipient cannot afford them or if they have simply been caught off guard – the aim is to stop periods keeping girls out of school and missing out.

The next question is about how to effectively communicate the free offering to pupils with a strategy needing to be planned in advance of distribution. Individual schools will have different needs and approaches depending on their pupils, structure and teaching methods, but one thing is key – engagement.

We not only need to make pupils aware that free sanitary products are available – and where from – but this presents a huge opportunity to tackle the stigma of period poverty and periods overall.

And our next generation agrees. Nearly 60 per cent of school girls believe more action needs to be taken to raise awareness of period poverty and almost half call for more action to remove the stigma around periods. Nearly 40 per cent also agree we need to educate more people about periods.

Period is not a dirty word and girls should not feel embarrassed by periods or feel that periods hold them back. It will only be through open communication and tackling the subject head on that we can empower the next generation and eradicate this stigma. This education starts with teaching staff – male and female – who must be given the right information and emboldened to talk about periods at any time. There is a time and place for more discreet conversations with girls about periods, but period education should not be isolated to these instances.

  • Chris Brown is head of public sector at hygiene services provider Phs Group, which has won the Department for Education contract to supply every school and college in England with period products.

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