DfE won't offer free sanitary products to counter period poverty

The Department for Education will not follow the Scottish Government’s lead and provide free sanitary products for pupils in all English schools.

Scotland will begin distributing sanitary products to pupils in every school, college and university from August, as well as to almost 20,000 adult women from low-income families.

But Schools Week understands that ministers in London have already ruled out extending the policy to English schools, despite concerns that “period poverty” is affecting pupils’ education.

A survey of 1,000 women aged 14 to 21 carried out by the charity Plan International UK last October found 15 per cent struggled to afford sanitary products, while 10 per cent could not afford them at all. Twelve per cent have been forced to “improvise” to create their own sanitary wear.

Campaigners say girls who can’t afford sanitary towels and tampons have lower attendance, educational attainment and emotional wellbeing, and had hoped that Scotland’s move, which followed a successful pilot in Aberdeen, would prompt action from Whitehall.

But a spokesperson for the DfE said it would continue to be left up to schools whether to spend their own cash for sanitary products “if they identify this as a barrier to attendance or attainment”.

The department also pointed to its own analysis, published in March, which found that although absence rates for girls increase after the age of 13 and exceed those of boys, this is true both for girls who are eligible for free school meals – and therefore more likely to experience period poverty – and those who are not eligible, suggesting that period poverty does not have a significant national impact on school attendance.

However Tina Leslie, who founded the Freedom4Girls charity, which provides free sanitary products to women around Leeds and in developing countries such as Kenya, said period poverty is “difficult to pin down with educational attainment and truancy because it’s such a taboo subject”.

“They aren’t going to put their hands up in the classroom and say they missed two days off school last week because their mother couldn’t afford sanitary towels,” she said, adding that girls who cannot afford sanitary wear are risking infection by not changing regularly or being forced to cut up “socks and T-shirts and bits of cloth”.

Freedom4Girls launched last year and already delivers to more than 30 schools every week.

“Every week we’re getting asked to do more,” she said. “It’s the same around the country. We’re supposed to be developed country, an educated country, but austerity is crippling our women and our girls.”

The Red Box Project also started last year when three friends began offering boxes of sanitary wear to secondary schools in Portsmouth. It has now become a national movement with dozens of groups across England, Scotland and Wales offering the boxes to local schools. The project was backed last month by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has set up a donation point for sanitary products at City Hall.

“We know that school staff are on the case. Again and again we hear that they buy sanitary items out of their own pocket. This isn’t fair,” a spokesperson said.

The government has a £15 million “tampon tax” fund, paid for with the VAT charged on sanitary products. Of this £1.5 million has been allocated to the Let’s Talk. Period project, which will distribute sanitary products to girls and young women in need across England. However, the scheme is yet to announce a start date and it is not known how many schools it will reach.