Access to sanitary products Aberdeen pilot: evaluation report

Findings from the evaluation of a 6-month Scottish Government funded pilot project in Aberdeen exploring access to sanitary products.

4. Findings: Schools, college and university

4.1 About participants

The initial survey collected information about pilot participants, including age, ethnicity and previous difficulties accessing products

4.1.1 College and University

In the college and university participants were aged between 17 and 48 and the average age was 26 (see Table 15 below). The majority of students identified as white (87%, 48). Just over half (29) lived in a household with children; 13 of these were single parents.

Table 15: College and university pilot participants by age group (initial survey)

% N
Under 18 2% 1
18-24 49% 27
25-34 35% 19
35-44 13% 7
45 and over 2% 1
Total   55

4.1.2 Schools

Participants at school were aged between 11 and 16 and the average age was 13.

Table 16: Age of school pilot participants (initial survey)

Age % N
11 3% 2
12 21% 16
13 44% 34
14 10% 8
15 17% 13
16 5% 4
Total 77

The majority of pupils identified as white (86%, 66).

4.2 Previous difficulties accessing products

4.2.1 College and University

Accessing sanitary products had presented difficulties in the past for around a third of student participants, while slightly under a quarter had ever been unable to purchase sanitary products.

Table 9: Student participants' experiences accessing products (initial survey)

'H as accessing sanitary products presented difficulties in the past?' 'Have you ever been unable to purchase sanitary products?'
Yes 32% (17) 23% (12)
No 68% (36) 77% (40)
Total 53 52
Not answered 2 3

Of the 14 students who provided a comment on why they had experienced difficulty, the majority (11) gave a reason related to their ability to afford products, generally living on a low income.

"No money to buy products and therefore have not been able to access. Also I have been caught out in public and not had any product."

Of those who commented on how they managed without products (7), six said they asked someone – generally a friend or family member – for products or money to buy products.

The lead at the university student union noted that being involved in the pilot had opened their eyes to the difficulties some women are going through.

"…it kind of shocked me a little bit actually because we only had 40 signed up in fresher's […] and to think that there was three students that signed up who had said they had been unable to buy products in the past and have had to, you know, find other ways. That shocked me a little bit because out of 40 students that's quite a high number to have, I expected one maybe, but I didn't expect three out of 40 to have said "I have been unable to buy", we had quite a big number of students who have said I've struggled but I have managed, but to find that three students have had to go without." End-point interview with Student Union representative, RGU

4.2.2 Schools

Around half of pupil participants did not answer this question. Twenty percent of pupils who answered the question (10% overall) had experienced difficulty accessing sanitary products and had been unable to purchase products.

Table 10: School participants' experiences accessing products (initial survey)

'H as accessing sanitary products presented difficulties in the past?' 'Have you ever been unable to purchase sanitary products?'
Yes 10% (8) 10% (8)
No 36% (28) 36% (28)
Not answered 53% (41) 53% (41)
Total 77 77

Of the seven pupils who provided a comment on why they had experienced difficulty, four did not have products at school when they needed them; two mentioned struggling to afford products and one did not feel comfortable getting them from a shop.

"When I first started my period I was in school and had no access to sanitary products so had to go home"

"I wouldn't feel comfortable going getting them from a shop"

Of the pupils who provided a comment on how they managed without products (7), six used toilet paper and one asked a friend.

School staff reported that they had previously kept a supply of products that pupils could ask for – in case pupils were caught short or started their period at school (one school mentioned that these were sent regularly by the manufacturer of Always).

4.3 Accessing products during the pilot

4.3.1 Promotion

College and university

In the college, the pilot was advertised through all student email, social media, posters in toilets, and on the Student Association's notice board and at their desk at City Campus. Lecturing and guidance staff were also informed of sign up dates and times. While in the university the pilot was promoted at Freshers Fair and via the Student Union's social media channels and in the Student Union building.

The majority of students had heard about the pilot direct from college/university, many at Freshers Fair. Getting the message out widely at the college and university seemed to have been a challenge amongst the volume of communications students received. Two volunteers at CFINE who were students at RGU had got involved with the pilot at CFINE, but had not heard anything about it via the university. The RGU students interviewed also said the pilot could have been more widely promoted. It is likely that the limited capacity of those taking the lead at the college and university restricted the level of promotion possible.


To promote the pilot to pupils, secondary schools used a mixture of assemblies, posters in the girls' toilets, discussion in Personal and Social Education classes, as well as guidance staff and school nurses mentioning the pilot to pupils. Schools also made parents aware of the pilot, for example via text message.

The primary school informed parents, and then decided to talk to the girls from primary 4 to 7 about the pilot. The lead noted learning from this about how informed their pupils were about periods:

"We just took all the girls together and we had a very good conversation actually about the products and it was quite interesting to realise that some of our children weren't as up‑to‑date as they thought they would be. […] Some of them didn't seem to know very much at all whereas others had a better understanding which has highlighted to us what we have to look at as a school." End-point interview with lead, Primary School

They also opened up the offer of free products to parents, informing them about this in a letter send home with their children.

4.3.2 Accessing products

Arrangements in schools, college and university

In both the college and university, students could collect the products they required at a designated pick-up point within the Student Association or Union's central hub. NESCol Student Association had a schedule of drop in sessions for collecting products that was released on a monthly basis. RGU's Student Union reception staff also emailed those who have signed up to remind them to access products each month.

In the secondary schools delivery was a shared duty between guidance staff and school nurses. In general, the secondary schools decided that products could be requested from the school office, school nurse or guidance teachers. One secondary school also agreed to trial making products available in the school toilets in baskets, to test an option that did not involve having to ask for products. In the primary school pupils could either ask in the classroom, the head teacher or the school nurse for products. Parent could collect products from their family worker.

How comfortable participants felt collecting products

The end-point survey asked pilot participants how comfortable they felt collecting products. Seventy one percent of those at school, college and university said they felt comfortable collecting products – a smaller proportion compared to those at from community partners (94%).

Table 12: How comfortable school, college and university participants felt collecting products (end-point survey)

% N
Very comfortable 30% 8
Quite comfortable 41% 11
Quite uncomfortable 30% 8
Very uncomfortable - 0
Total 27
Prefer not to say / Missing 3

Reasons for not signing up to the pilot – lack of knowledge

The end-point survey for college and university students, and school pupils was open to all students to complete, not just those who had taken part in the pilot. Some respondents who had heard about the pilot but had not signed up to take part (107) gave a reason why they did not sign up. Almost half said this was because they either did not know about the pilot, did not know how to sign up or did not know if they would be eligible ( e.g. as they weren't on a low income or were a staff member). Some survey respondents said they did not sign up because they could afford products or had products at home. Others said they did not need products because of the contraception they were on or they no longer had periods. A small number said they had not wanted to ask for products or felt embarrassed. Other reasons mentioned were not having time to sign up or the collection of provision not being convenient.

Having to ask for products

Having to speak to someone in order to access products was considered by staff to be a key barrier for students and pupils.

"Well, we've tried to make it a discreet process. It is quite difficult when you have to log them. When this goes forward, I like the idea of the card system, I think that would be great. I think we have struggled because you have to come and ask someone, and I know [receptionist] and she is lovely, and she has no judging people whatsoever about this, but people that are not engaged with the union don't maybe know that our receptionist is female for example, something as simple as that, if you've not been in the office you maybe don't know that we have a female receptionist, and something like that could be putting someone off, simple things." End-point interview with Student Union representative, RGU

"Even with the girls in the classes the confident ones will come and ask but the shier ones tend to send out a friend to ask." End-point interview with lead, Primary School)

The lead at the primary school also noted that it was difficult to find an appropriate method of making products available to parents, as they did not want to come into the school office and ask. A few parents had collected products from their family worker, but they did not feel they had got their approach quite right yet.

Embarrassment was a particular issue for young people

Embarrassment was highlighted as a particular issue for younger people. The leads at the schools – and at some of the community partners who work with young people – fed back observations that many students seemed to be shy or embarrassed to talk about menstruation and ask for sanitary products.

"Pupils who were keen to sign up were not always forthcoming. Perhaps finding time to visit the relevant staff and embarrassment were factors. In my experience, sending groups of girls together during PSE was far more effective in getting larger number or reluctant pupils to commit to meeting with the nurse. […] Pupils, particularly junior pupils, were quite shy, embarrassed to sign up. We had some giggling from boys and this may have put some pupils off." Written feedback from lead at secondary school

"I think quite a lot of the younger women, so the under twenties, they still find it really embarrassing to talk about, especially with stranger, you know – like me. So quite a lot of the time they've signed the form and everything, and they've done the evaluation, but they won't come in to pick them up. It their mums, that are also on the pilot, that come and pick them up for them. Oh that's really interesting. Yeah, oh the young girls are really not keen to chat about that with me . […] I think we've got three ladies under the age of 20; only one of them has come in to pick up her own products and even then she was visibly embarrassed. And the other two haven't picked them up themselves. […] one of girls who is part of the pilot, I give her products to her youth worker." Initial partner interview, regeneration area

Provision seen as intended for those 'in need'

As highlighted in the survey responses, students may have seen provision as just for those in need rather than for everyone, despite messaging that products were available to all.

"I think with something like this which is so personal, I don't think it is something you would pick up off of an email and say yeah that is definitely what I want to do, I think a lot of students have still got this in their minds that this pilot was only for people who were in need, even though it was clearly advertised that it was for all, I do think people in their minds said "I'm not in need so I shouldn't be taking this", but when you do it face to face you say, "no it's absolutely fine", the tone of voice comes in and then you get the sign ups." End-point interview with Student Union representative, RGU

Times provision was available

Other barriers to accessing products identified by staff were limited time during school day for young people to drop past and collect products, and staff being out of office with other aspects of their role when young people have attended.

4.3.3 Making products available in school toilets

In general the schools that took part in the pilot were reluctant to make products available in the school toilets due to concerns about misuse. The primary school lead noted that "children might play with them and they might end up making a mess with them". One secondary school did trial having products in a 'sparkly' box in the school toilets, but felt unable to keep the trial going for long. The lead for the school did note that the school have had particular problems keeping the toilets tidy, and that in schools that do not have this problem making products available in the toilet seems like an effective method and might be more successful.

"I actually delayed and waited until study leave, till the prelims, because then for 2 weeks S4 to S6 pupils were out of school. They were only in for their exams so it meant we only had S1‑S3, and I thought, well, let's try it there and see if there's less vandalism so to speak. The product was shoved down the toilet and thrown around the room. So it's hard to say if anybody genuinely took the product but it's less likely. […]. I was having to find a careful balance between how long we pursued it and how long with the good will of the janitor is was going to last. […] They were really accommodating and fine about it but I just felt that we couldn't really go. It was being abused." End-point interview with lead, secondary school

4.4 Products provided

College and university students were more likely to receive tampons than participants at the community partners: 37% received towels and 41% tampons.

Table 17: Product received by students and pupils – overall (Admin data)

College/ university Schools
Towels 37% (46) 74% (74)
Tampons 41% (50) 14% (14)
Tampons & towels 19% (23) 12% (12)
Menstrual cup 2% (2) N/A
Pre-paid card 2% (2) N/A
Total 123 100

Almost three quarters of school pupils received towels.

Of the 27 college and university student pilot participants who completed the end-point survey, only one received a pre-paid card, while the rest received products directly. The majority (93%, 25) said they received enough products. Fifty nine percent (16) said they received a reasonable choice of products, while 41% (11) chose 'partially – I was able to choose the type of product I wanted but not my preferred brand'. The four school pupil participants who answered the survey said they were able to access enough and a reasonable choice of products.

4.4.1 Reusable products

Awareness of reusable products was higher amongst students than participants at community partners: 72% had heard of reusable products and 13% had tried them. The majority of students who had not tried reusable products were interested in trying them.

Table 18: Knowledge of reusable products (students, initial survey)

Heard of reusable products Tried reusable products Interested in trying
Yes 72% (38) 13% (7) 91% (42)
No 28% (15) 87% (47) 9% (4)
Total 53 54 46
Not answered 2 1 2

However, the interest in reusable products among students did not translate into the proportion of products given out, as shown in Table 17. This may have been due to delays in reusable products being made available in the university and college, and students not being aware that these options were available. In an interview with two university students, they had discussed reusable products when they signed up to the pilot but were not aware these products were actually available.

4.5 Challenges in providing access to products

As for community partner staff, the main challenge identified in providing products was limited staff time to dedicate to the pilot. The timing of the pilot in relation to school holidays also created some delays in setting up and promoting provision. As noted above, getting students to sign up was a challenge – all the lead staff in secondary schools mentioned being surprised that the numbers signing up were not higher. One secondary school staff member noted that getting pupils to collect products in groups was more effective ( e.g. during Personal and Social Education classes). In addition to embarrassment and time to access products, school staff felt that longer was needed to get provision established and normalised. The two school staff interviewed had found CFINE easy to work with and felt that the school received a good variety of products.

4.6 Impact of the pilot

4.6.1 Impact on students

Slightly under two thirds (63%, 17) of college and university pilot participants who completed the end-point survey thought the pilot had an impact on them. Around fifth (22%, 6) were unsure and 15% (4) thought it had not. Among those who said the pilot had, had an impact, the most common impact selected was being less worried about having their period – selected by around half.

Table 19: Impact school, college and university participants thought the pilot had on them (end-point survey)

Less worried about having my period 48% (10)
Improved my mental health and wellbeing 24% (5)
More able to continue attending school/college/university during my period 19% (4)
More able to continue with day to day activities during my period 19% (4)
Felt embarrassed because I couldn't afford sanitary products 10% (2)
Felt embarrassed about having to discuss sanitary products 10% (2)
Total 21

4.6.2 Impact on institutions

Impacts noted by the two lead staff members who were interviewed mainly focussed on education and opening up opportunities for discussion. The lead at the secondary school noted that the pilot had enabled wider discussion with pupils around sanitary products and gender equality ( e.g. taxation of sanitary products), which they hoped would be a step towards normalising discussion of menstruation. The lead at the primary school noted the impact of the pilot on thinking about their health and wellbeing curriculum.

"I think it had made us look at our curriculum and think what are we delivering and how were we going to create a whole school approach to involving health and wellbeing and sex education I suppose right throughout the school." (Primary)

4.7 Access to products in the future

In the end-point survey, respondents were asked, if a scheme to provide access to free sanitary products was introduced in the future, which of six options they would prefer. First ticking as many as they like then selecting their most preferred option. Students who had and had not taken part in the pilot were asked these questions.

Table 20: Participants' views on ways of accessing products ( EP survey, select all)

Option College University School
Free products available in the school, college or university toilets 67% (91) 73% (79) 47% (16)
Receive a card I can use in shops to get free products 55% (75) 54% (58) 41% (14)
Order online through a secure system for delivery by post 48% (65) 72% (78) 26% (9)
Receive a voucher I can exchange in shops to get free products 42% (57) 41% (44) 26% (9)
Collect free products from a designated location in school, college or university 32% (44) 38% (41) 12% (4)
Free products available from a member of school, college or university staff 13% (17) 11% (12) 15% (5)
Total responses 136 108 34

Table 21: Participants views on ways of accessing products ( EP survey, preferred)

Option College University School
Free products available in the school, college or university toilets 31% (42) 26% (28) 15% (5)
Order online through a secure system for delivery by post 24% (32) 38% (41) 12% (4)
Receive a card I can use in shops to get free products 27% (37) 15% (16) 41% (14)
Receive a voucher I can exchange in shops to get free products 7% (10) 11% (12) 12% (4)
Collect free products from a designated location in school, college or university 8% (11) 10% (11) 9% (3)
Free products available from a member of school, college or university staff 2% (3) 0 12% (4)
Total responses 135 108 34

Free products available in the toilets and receive a card were commonly selected across all groups. Order online was commonly selected by university students. The least commonly selected option was 'free products available from a member of staff' – the option used in the pilot.

The most popular option for university students was ordering online, for college students it was products available in the toilets and for school pupils it was to receive a card. The second most popular option for college students was to receive a card, while for university students and school pupils it was free products available in university/school toilet.

Advantages and disadvantages of different options

Reasons given for their preferred method were similar across most of the options, and commonly highlighted that the option was easy to access or convenient, and discreet or less embarrassing – several mentioned not wanting to have to ask someone for products. Several respondents noted that accessing products from toilets would be good for emergencies. Some mentioned that online access and receiving a card would allow access outside of campus and your own choice of product. Those who selected online access often highlighted not having to speak to anyone or that it is the most private or anonymous option. A couple noted that a card or voucher could be stigmatising.

As with considering how to make products available during the pilot, accessing products discreetly and without having to ask was also highlighted by lead staff as important for students. Although it was recognised that making products freely available can be challenging in a school context.

" If you could, what would you do to change the way that you could do the pilot, if you had full control? I would have had an even more discreet service, I would try to take the human element out of it." End-point interview with Student Union representative, RGU


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