Government research into the link between school absence and "period poverty" – girls being unable to afford sanitary products – has been heavily criticised by campaigners for "downplaying" the problem.
The research, by the Department for Education, aimed to find out whether period poverty was preventing girls from disadvantaged backgrounds from attending school.
Campaigners want the government to put money aside to fund sanitary products for pupils who cannot afford them – but ministers have said this is a matter for schools.
In a document published yesterday, the DfE states: "There have been recent media reports to suggest that some economically disadvantaged girls are unable to attend school during their periods as they cannot afford sanitary products.
"This analysis aims to examine our absence data for evidence that disadvantaged girls are not attending school due to not being able to afford sanitary products."
The research does not draw any conclusions, but the findings do not appear to demonstrate a link between period poverty and school absence.
It finds that girls have a slightly lower rate of absence than boys until around the age of 12, but from the age of 13 onwards, girls’ absence rates catch up – then surpass – those for boys.
However, this is true both for pupils who are eligible for free school meals and those who are ineligible.
'Dismissing' period poverty
Labour MP Paula Sherriff, the former shadow equalities minister who has called for free sanitary products to be provided to pupils, said the government should be "ashamed" of the research.
"Reports from charities, voluntary groups and schools across the country have told of girls from low-income families struggling to afford sanitary protection," she said. "Many teachers have come forward to say they regularly buy vital sanitary products for their struggling students.
"So it is deeply disappointing that, instead of coming up with ways to address the indignity of period poverty, the government has published a superficial analysis of existing school absence data that downplays the link between period poverty and school absence rates.
"The anxiety, stress and embarrassment that come with a lack of sanitary protection should not be experienced by school girls in one of the most advanced industrial nations on earth. Period poverty in our schools is a problem that can easily be addressed and the government should be ashamed of this attempt to dismiss it."
Last week, children's charity Plan UK published statistics showing that 40 per cent of girls in the UK had used toilet roll because they couldn’t afford tampons or towels.
Amika George, the teenager behind the #FreePeriods campaign, which helped to organise a protest in Westminster last December attended by celebrities, also disputed the DfE findings.
"I started the #FreePeriods campaign almost a year ago, and I’ve been overwhelmed by the evidence that points to how damaging an issue period poverty is in the UK," she said.
She questioned whether the problem would be apparent in official statistics on pupil absence, because of girls' reluctance to talk about it. "There is already a shame and stigma about poverty but add menstruation into the mix, and many girls simply choose not to admit to suffering from period poverty," she said.
Free sanitary products would help to give girls in this country the same educational opportunities as boys, she added.
The DfE has been contacted for comment.