A third of girls say period products are not available at school

New research from Girlguiding reveals significant flaws in the government’s period product scheme

New research from Girlguiding reveals significant flaws in the government’s period product scheme in England, with almost a third of girls aged 11-18 unable to access free products despite 1 in 10 girls or their family being unable to afford them.

In 2020, following a campaign by Girlguiding, other organisations and activists, the Department for Health and Social Care pledged to provide free period products for all students under the age of 18 in state-run schools and colleges in England. Similar schemes are in place in Wales and Scotland, while a pilot is underway in Northern Ireland. Two years on, the leading UK charity for girls and young women is calling on the government to do a full-scale evaluation of the scheme to ensure it is effective in helping those it seeks to, and make it permanent.

The new research highlights the ways the scheme is failing to provide for girls and young women. Almost half of respondents (46%) haven’t accessed period products at their school or college, and almost a third (32%) haven’t been able to because they weren’t available. A similar number of girls (30%) say they feel too embarrassed to access them. Availability is highest in London (64%), Scotland (60%) and Wales (58%) and lowest in the South East and Eastern regions (43% and 38% respectively).

Over one third of students said they can access free period products in their school toilets (35%) but another third revealed they have to ask a teacher if they want to access them (32%). Over half (54%) of respondents said they felt uncomfortable asking for period products at school. Almost 1 in 6 say the products are available at a drop-in collection (14%). A similar number (12%) say they’re available in a communal space.

When it comes to the cost, over three quarters of girls (77%) think period products are too expensive. Sadly, 1 in 10 say they or their family cannot afford to buy period products.

The research also found 8 in 10 (80%) girls and young women aged 11 to 18 haven’t been asked what type of period products they’d like provided by their school or college. As a result of this lack of engagement and consultation, there is a mismatch between the type of period products available and the period products girls and young women want. 

When it comes to the types of period products available to them, almost 7 in 10 (68%) say pads are available to them. However, only 9% say environmentally friendly pads are available, despite 13% saying these are their preferred products to use.

As a result of these findings Girlguiding is recommending that the Department for Education: 

  • Conduct a full evaluation of the free period products scheme. 
  • Make the free period products scheme permanent. 
  • Require schools and colleges to consult students and issue guidance on how to do so. 

Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) in England was also reformed in 2020 to include education on periods. Encouragingly, 84% of respondents say they learn about the menstrual cycle at school. However, less than half say they learn about the impact of periods of physical health (40%), mental/emotional health (36%) and period stigma and shame (27%) at school. 

One of the respondents in Girlguiding’s peer led research said: “My old school didn’t used to have them. Once, I ran into an issue where I needed them and they weren’t there, and so I had to ask my friend. But I know that if my friend wasn’t there I would have been stuck. Trying to avoid girls running into that situation is really important. I just think [the scheme] has had such a positive impact on school life”

Another respondent said: “The whole idea of a period is taboo and no one really talks about it at school.”

Caitlyn and Lucy, Girlguiding advocates, said: “No one should be forced out of education because of their period. We were so pleased in 2020 when the UK government finally introduced free period products in schools and colleges in England.

But our research shows that the scheme isn’t working as it should and millions either don’t have access to period products or, feel too uncomfortable and embarrassed to access them at school.

As Girlguiding advocates we’re calling on the government to change this. It shouldn’t be our job to evaluate the scheme. We want the Department for Education and counterparts in devolved nations to do a full evaluation and make the changes needed so that everyone can access the period products they need.”

In 2018, the Advocate panel, made up of Girlguiding members aged between 14 and 21, designed the first ever Period Poverty badge for girls and leaders to wear to show their support for the campaign and encourage others not to be ashamed or embarrassed to talk openly about periods. Members can still buy the badge here and pledge to help end period stigma here.