Written by The Red Box Project HQ and South East London Coordinator, Becky Lopez
In last week’s Spring Statement, the Government promised to tackle period poverty in English schools, committing to provide menstrual products to all secondary schools and colleges. Like many campaigners around the country, I moved swiftly from elation to disappointment: what about primary schools? And watched with interest when Hammond was tackled on this by Danielle Rowley. His response: “I suppose that it is a manifestation of the universal truth that you can never satisfy”.
And he’s right. We’re not satisfied. Pleased it’s happened: yes. But no, not satisfied. And nor could we ever be with a move that excludes thousands of young people from support, depending on whether or not they were able to hang on and not start menstruating until the arbitrary age of 12. We haven’t changed our aim. We want products available to all young people who menstruate. Period.
Why do primary schools matter to us so very much? At the Red Box Project, about a third of the boxes we have in educational settings are in primary schools. We do not deny that, as Hammond said, “the core of the problem [of period poverty] is in secondary schools”. Our box numbers and the frequency of top ups we supply support that. But nor can we deny that, if period poverty is a problem in secondary schools, it must be in primary schools too. Because under 12s menstruate. It’s simple maths. If the average age that a girl starts menstruating in the UK is 12, coincidentally around the age they start secondary school, some will start above and some will start below that age. And those younger girls, who can start as young as 8 or 9, deserve our support to stay in school as much as older school children do. Without support, they could face a monthly struggle for up to 3 years of school.
One way to look at it is as a matter of kindness. The younger the child when she starts menstruating, the more difficult her experience is likely to be. She is more likely to be isolated in her experience, without friends going through the same thing. She is less likely to have independence, able to get to the shops on her way home from school, for example, or earning pocket money so that she can make choices to support herself. She may have less help in school, with a lack of facilities in the toilets to make her feel comfortable about changing pads. She may not have had any formal education on menstruation. She may not even know what’s happening to her when her period starts, or what to do next. These are the vulnerable, anxious young people that a well-executed scheme designed to deliver period products into all schools could give vital support and confidence to.
But it’s not just about kindness; it’s about human rights. A child’s right to an education doesn’t start aged 12, when they start secondary school. All children are entitled to an education, regardless of their gender, social background and their age. Yet we know there is a growing attainment gap between FSM students and their peers that exists before children even start school, growing in every stage of education that follows. By the time a child on FSM finishes primary school, they will already be an estimated 9.5 months behind their peers. Of course, the reasons behind this gap are multifaceted and complicated. But young people need all of the support they can get, to stay in school and to be able to participate fully in lessons. Free menstrual products can help with that. Catching up is difficult. That support has to start early. Waiting until secondary school is too late.
Hammond said: “I am open to sensible suggestions for how we might address [the issue regarding primary schools]”. So here you go: set aside the money for primary schools to be able to buy products too. And please include PRUs and other special education settings whilst you’re doing so. In our experience, the need in primary schools is low, and so the cost should be too. But every child matters. Let’s keep them all in school. All month. Every month.