The majority of schools in England have failed to sign up to the government scheme to provide free sanitary products, despite teachers warning period poverty has soared in the wake of coronavirus chaos.
Ministers announced in spring of last year that girls at primary and secondary schools would be given free sanitary products from early 2020, but campaigners have now accused the government of failing to properly alert schools to the programme.
Amika George, who spearheaded the campaign to get free period products in schools, told The Independent she was massively disappointed over 60 per cent of schools have not claimed them from the government.
The 20-year-old said: “It is clearly a problem that it is an opt-in scheme. It should be made mandatory and enshrined in legislation so schools have to order period products in the same way they order soap and toilet paper. The main problem is the lack of awareness. The government clearly hasn’t done enough to promote the scheme among schools. Some schools simply aren’t aware the scheme exists.
“It is also linked to the wider issue of periods being a neglected issue in society. There is growing financial insecurity due to the pandemic which has hit the most marginalised in society which has increased period poverty. I’ve been contacted by students who have told me since their schools closed and they were no longer able to afford period products due to poverty, they have been going without products.
“The government took over two and a half years to implement a solution to period poverty in schools. I launched the free periods campaign in 2017 and nothing happened until 2019 despite widespread mounting pressure on the government from campaigners, which is evidence of the fact that periods are an overlooked issue in the political arena and wider society due to the taboo around them.”
Ms George, who started campaigning for free period products after learning girls were using newspapers, toilet roll and socks to cope with their periods and missing school each month, said the scheme had “slipped under the radar” because of school closures in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.
The campaigner noted the scheme had continued during the lockdown – with schools able to distribute period products – but said many schools were unaware of this due to the government not publicising it enough.
Ms George said information about the government scheme and the straightforward process of how to sign up can be found on Free Period’s website. She urged all schools to call up phs – which supplies the scheme’s products – to order products.
“This can be done by any teacher or headteacher,” she added. “We are encouraging all students to start a dialogue with members of staff so they are aware of the scheme.”
Research by charity Plan International found three in 10 girls in the UK have struggled to afford or access period products during the coronavirus crisis – with over half of them having to resort to toilet paper instead of proper products. While one in five said their periods have been more difficult to cope with due to not having enough toilet roll.
Nadia Collier, a family support worker at Daubeney Primary School in Hackney, told The Independent: “I’ve seen first-hand how critical these free products are for girls, so I’m urging all schools to sign up for free products for the sake of pupils and their families. We all know that the pandemic is placing a financial strain on household finances and making period poverty worse, so government funding for period products is more critical than ever.
“Just because one school stopped doesn’t mean we did, nor did the girls’ periods. They still needed products during lockdown, so we distributed them in care packages – sending tampons and pads with food parcels to families in need. And it wasn’t just a ‘nice to have’ for these girls – it was crucial. Lots of them have visited my office since school reopened to say how grateful they were for the packages during that really tricky time.
"Also, since having the products in school, periods and wider girls’ issues are spoken about with so much more confidence. More and more girls from Years 5 and 6 are coming to me each week asking for products, and feeling confident and happy to do so. The boys also realise it’s nothing to giggle at anymore and speak about it openly. We’re seeing the taboo around periods fading, and providing free products in school kick started the whole movement.”
Period poverty is a widespread issue in the UK – with previous statistics showing 49 per cent of girls have missed a day of school due to periods and one in 10 women aged 14 to 21 are not able to afford period products.
Gemma Abbott, director of Free Periods, told The Independent: “The lockdown has had practical implications for those who need support to access period supplies. With schools and colleges closed, young people may have lost access to their main supply of menstrual products. Beyond education, it is clear that many face-to-face support services have been curtailed, so limiting the availability of free products from drop-in centres and other places of support.
“And formerly prosaic tasks like going to the local supermarket have become impossible or fraught for many (whether due to shielding, self-isolation or otherwise), further limiting choice and access to period supplies.
“At the time of launch, the government suggested that if insufficient schools signed up, they would consider changing the ‘opt in’ nature of the scheme – if these stats have not improved quite drastically by October half-term, this surely needs to be considered.
“It isn’t hard to place an order for free period supplies – just one phone call is needed to phs – but it is hard to attend school and concentrate on your lessons when you’ve stuffed a pile of toilet roll in your pants because you don’t have access to pads.”
Sanitary products in the UK are classed as a “luxury, non-essential item” and taxed at 5 per cent – with the average lifetime cost of sanitary products estimated at £4,800.
Rebecca Conn-Pearson, society and faith subject leader at Birches Head Academy in Stoke-on-Trent, told The Independent: “Throughout the lockdown period, we implemented a grab-and-go system, via which students could arrange to collect items they required. Uptake of this scheme demonstrated that access to free period products is well and truly needed and appreciated by the students in our care. I would strongly urge all schools to sign up for the government’s scheme. It is easy, free and it will make a huge difference to students in schools.”
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