COLUMNIST: Exams shouldn’t be a test of period poverty or a measure of menstrual taboos

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I am calling for Sheffield school to add one more item to their invigilation kits this exam season.

Along with the pens, pencils and protractors, exam boards, teachers and invigilators should be thinking about periods too. By putting a supply of menstrual products in the toilets nearest exam halls and by displaying posters about this change, schools can give pupils on less thing to worry about.

As the founder of #periodpositive, a former head of PSHE here in Sheffield, and a menstruation education researcher, I was motivated to launch the campaign after speaking to current and former pupils.

It can be stressful to get caught short on your period, and exams are stressful enough anyway. While leaking on your period should not be the worst thing in the world, the ongoing stigma around menstruation has led to this remaining a panic-inducing moment for many. Add in the complicating factor of exam rules preventing you from taking anything to the toilet with you, and it’s your basic teenage nightmare.

I remember one pupil bursting into my PSHE classroom and saying, “Miss! I got my period in the exam and I didn’t have anything. I was more focused on my period than I was on the exam questions!”

I worried that her results could be affected by something we could solve very easily with just a little forethought - but because of menstrual taboos, most of us rarely think about the hidden consequences.

Anyone who’s sat silently through an exam for any reason can relate to this particular worry. You don’t have to get periods to understand why it would be a relief to know that if your pencil snaps, if you’ve forgotten your calculator or if you come on your period a few days early, your school’s got you covered.

The current campaign from #periodpositive, Exams. Period. (hashtag #examsperiod on social media) sends a message that schools are ready to challenge menstrual taboos by making a simple but powerfully effective change in the school environment that, if picked up by exam boards and made an annual part of exam protocol, could begin to tackle one aspect of period poverty long term.

Period poverty is not just financial poverty - sometimes it’s poverty of knowledge, confidence, sustainability or access, and schools can address this right now. Any school can do this, any exams coordinator can facilitate this and let pupils know, and in Sheffield #periodpositive has been taking donations of a variety of disposable menstrual products all term in different brands, sizes and absorbances for just this purpose.

Schools have already started to come on board and the very first one is Notre Dame school and I am delighted that they are challenging expectations around faith schools struggling to address menstrual taboos. They are leading the way in Sheffield with this initiative and I hope more and more schools will take it up as exam season progresses.

So if you work in a school or have children taking their exams now, here’s how you can support the Exams. Period. Campaign:

1. Collect pads and tampons of different brands, absorbencies, sizes and styles. Donated products are available from #periodpositive. Get in touch to arrange to have some dropped off.

2. Ensure your exams coordinator disseminates products, information sheets and instructions to exam invigilators, and updates new staff.

3. Identify the toilets nearest the exam hall. Put products in an accessible and visible space.

4. Let pupils know they’re there by displaying posters provided in the exam hall and on toilet doors.

Letting pupils know is really important - even if no one needs them, seeing a sign that says products are available is reassuring and sets kids up for success.

#periodpositive has been taking donations of a variety of disposable menstrual products in different brands, sizes and absorbencies for just this purpose.

Get in touch if you would like an invigilator pack and some menstrual products for your school, or download the pack on its own and support #periodpositive’s campaign to put the focus back on Exams. Period. You can get in touch with me or download the pack from www.periodpositive.com.

I’m asking parents and pupils around Sheffield to encourage their schools to support #periodpositive’s campaign (#examsperiod) and put the focus back on Exams. Period.