Wherever you are in the world it’s clear that providing period products in school is a great way to promote period dignity and ensure everyone has access to what they need to manage their period. They might be struggling to afford products or may be caught out by their period arriving unexpectedly. It’s normal for periods to be irregular for the first few years and everyone who menstruates probably has a story of needing to use toilet roll or similar to manage when they got caught short.
Since January 2020 all state funded schools and colleges in England have been entitled to free period products. The scheme, managed by phs Group, allows schools to order supplies within a defined budget and offers both disposable and reusable products. It’s a great step and follows the provision of free products in all schools, colleges and universities (and then public buildings) in Scotland since 2018.
If you’re in a school and wondering where you should start, you’ve come to the right place!
Hey Girls (the not-for-profit, buy-one-give-one period product company based in Scotland) have produced an excellent guide for schools with lots of examples of primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities doing great work. Their experience in providing many schools across Scotland with period products has brought valuable lessons in how schools can do this well. We’re really grateful for Hey Girls for sharing their learning so generously. They are old friends as we worked with them on their educational resources in 2018, including their innovative My Period cards – check them out if you haven’t already – the lesson plans and resource pack for schools are free to download.
In 2019 we worked with Bristol City Council and the One City Plan on their Period Friendly Schools program, training staff and producing guidance for schools. From our many conversations with school staff, young people and other professionals working with young people, we heard what Bristol schools are already doing really well as well as the challenges they are facing in being period friendly. The following recommendations come from this consultation and are a great starting point if you’re wondering what to do in your school.
Prioritise period dignity for all
We know as school staff you are incredibly busy. There are huge demands on schools and many competing priorities. Is being period friendly really important? Not surprisingly we think it is! Half the population of your school (and many staff) will experience periods on a regular basis and worries of being caught short, leaking through clothing, pain and having to do PE can cause young people who menstruate to miss school. Promoting period dignity – making your school a supportive and friendly place for anyone on their period – could make a huge difference to many people. Having access to free period products is a fantastic place to start, as it gives you the opportunity to start talking about periods in your school, either more if you already do, or perhaps for the first time if not. We know, it can be awkward, but the best way to get over that is just by doing it and then carrying on until it’s a normal and accepted part of school life.
Include everyone in the conversation
It is important to remember that not everyone who menstruates identifies as female, and not everyone who identifies as female menstruates. Plus as the wonderful Chella Quint says in her #periodpositive pledge “whether you menstruate or not, everybody had a room that was a womb”! Including everyone in the conversation acknowledges that we are all affected by periods in some way (whether by personally experiencing them or living with or knowing someone who does). It also counteracts the prevailing atmosphere of secrecy that often surrounds periods. Shame and secrecy go hand in hand, so talking about periods as a whole school community gives the message that there is nothing secret or shameful about this normal and important body function.
Speak to your pupils
Young people know what they’ll use, and where they need to find it. Speak with your student council, send out a survey, run focus groups, start a period steering group – whatever ways work for you to get a good picture of what to order and where to place it. As before, include everyone in this conversation – as many pupils as possible, parents and staff. Including everyone means the voices of pupils with SEND and trans and non binary pupils are also heard.
Provide a wide variety of products, including plastic free and reusables
First things first, make sure you’re signed up with phs Group to order your products. All state funded schools in England will have received emails from the Department for Education and phs Group back in January, but if you haven’t seen these, then you can sign up here.
Having spoken to your pupils you’ll have a good idea of what to provide. We recommend a good selection of disposable products, including plastic free ones if possible (phs Group are yet to provide plastic free disposables, but you can join City to Sea in calling on them to do so) and reusables if your pupils are interested in trying them. Menstrual cups are available for secondary and colleges only, but all schools can order reusable pads. These of course are more expensive, but discussion and experimentation could work well alongside environmental studies. With the UK government calling on schools to be plastic free by 2022 we hope phs Group will continue to provide more plastic free options for schools.
Make products as easily accessible as possible
So where do you put products? Most schools we spoke to were concerned about pupils wasting and messing about with products if left unsupervised. Yet learning from Scotland has shown that when products are introduced with a widespread, whole school education campaign there is either no or very little abuse. When asked, pupils always prefer to access products direct from toilet blocks, preferably from within toilet cubicles. Whilst there is a fine line between privacy and secrecy, young people just starting out on the road of managing periods understandably often prefer a private place to do so. Some schools who don’t feel able to place products in toilets (yet) are getting around this by having them available in multiple locations around the school, as close to toilet blocks as possible, so no one has to go far to find them. In the short turnaround between lessons, being able to find a product quickly and easily is important. If you do choose to place products somewhere other than in the toilets, try to allow open access without the need for pupils to ask a member of staff. See the Hey Girls Guide for lots of examples of how primary and secondary schools and colleges are making products available.
Consider how trans and non binary pupils who need them can easily access products, do you have gender neutral toilets you can put them in? Placing products in accessible toilets is a great way to provide a spacious, private space that anyone can access. Make sure you also provide clear and easy to understand instructions on how to use and dispose of the products and who to ask for help wherever you provide products. This not only is important if you have pupils with SEND but also for everyone – if pupils miss the lesson on managing periods and start their period at school, they may have no idea how to use or dispose of products without this guidance.
Educate, educate, educate!
This is the most important bit, and everyone needs to be included. Think about how you can let all pupils know about where products are and that they are available for everyone. The Department for Education is clear that the scheme is open to everyone, not just those who can’t afford to buy products themselves. In fact, labelling products as being for “period poverty” is likely to put everyone off using them – no one wants to be outed as being “poor”. Consider how you can raise awareness in multiple ways. Could you get your pupil steering group to design posters to put all round the school (including in every toilet cubicle)? Use phrases like “Got caught short?” or similar. You may want to run assemblies to raise awareness, send information home, discuss in the classroom and tutor time. However you do it, try to include everyone. In primary you may need to include years younger than year 4 if they share toilets or classrooms, if so just consider how to keep that information upbeat and age appropriate and explain to parents why you’re doing so.
Providing products is the ideal opportunity to get talking about periods in general. Menstrual wellbeing will soon be included in health education when the new statutory RSE curriculum begins in September 2020. We recommend taking a whole school approach in educating and raising awareness about menstrual wellbeing and period product provision. Involve parents as early as possible, share teaching resources with them and get their buy in. Starting from at least year 4 in primary, teach about periods and the menstrual cycle, including practical and emotional discussion and advice, as often as your timetable allows, all the way through secondary. If you can teach about it early on in the year you’ll ensure that anyone starting their periods for the first time has already found out what to do and where to find products if they need them (menarche – first period – can happen any time between the ages of 8 and 16). Check out our lesson plans and activities for primary schools here, or those we developed with Hey Girls for all ages here.
Include all genders in education and awareness raising, that way everyone is included and those who don’t menstruate understand what their peers are going through. This sends a powerful message and strongly counteracts the climate of secrecy that can perpetuate feelings of period related shame and embarrassment many young (and older!) people experience. We have found that when you start talking about periods early, children tend to be interested and engaged. It’s common for schools to separate genders to talk about puberty and, while schools serving some faith communities may need to do this, it’s great to teach all genders together where possible. That said, pupils also like to have the opportunity to ask questions with just their own gender, so consider following up with a separate gender session where everyone receives the same content but can have plenty time for discussion and questions.
We hope this has been a helpful resource for you to get started in providing products in your school and promoting period dignity. In future blogs we’ll go into how to get parents on board, including all genders and more on what to include in menstrual wellbeing education. Let us know what you’re doing in your school! If you have any photos send them too and if you’re happy with us doing so we’ll share them on our social media channels as examples to inspire other settings.