Tackling period poverty: Primary school roll-out

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

The government has 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 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, 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.

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. The 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 early this year.

The Department for Education (DfE) is to publish guidance 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, in 2018, 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. On 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 more than three-quarters of school girls supporting this proposal according to the Phs research. However, the risk of keeping products stored away is that they do not reach their intended recipients (in the Phs survey, six per cent of school girls reported that their school already has free products but they do not know how to access them).

A third supported having baskets of free products available and just over half back a coin-free washroom vending machine.

However, while this may be a good solution for secondary schools, it is not always going to work for primary schools simply due to the age range and smaller number of pupils who have started their periods. Primary schools face a more delicate balance of needing to offer free products to some pupils but having much younger pupils who have not yet been exposed to periods or period education. My experience has found that having a supply of products available by request or by distributing them to older girls has been successful within primary schools who are already offering free products.

The next question is about how to effectively communicate the free offering to pupils. A strategy needs 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 in general. While periods should be something we can all talk openly about, it remains a taboo subject. By the time they reach their teenage years, only 10 per cent of girls say they would not be embarrassed to ask for sanitary products or to talk about periods with someone else.

However, nearly 60 per cent of school girls believe that more action needs to be taken to raise awareness of period poverty, almost half call for more action to remove the stigma around periods, and 40 per cent agree we need to educate more people about periods (Phs Group, 2019).

Primary schools have an amazing opportunity to nurture a new generation of young people who are not embarrassed to talk about periods and who can breakdown a stigma which has clung around for far too long.

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. Frank debate, open discussion and education should be available to all pupils across the curriculum until it becomes the norm. 

  • 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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