Agnew vows crackdown on schools with ‘pernicious’ exclusive uniform suppliers

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Academies minister Lord Agnew has vowed to crackdown on schools using “monopoly suppliers” for their school uniform – claiming it was a “pernicious way of excluding children from less well-off backgrounds”.

During a joint education and work and pensions select committee session on Wednesday, Emma Hardy raised the issue of the cost of school uniforms, particularly the requirement of some schools that parents buy branded items from monopoly suppliers, thereby increasing costs.

Labour MP Hardy called on the government to encourage schools to stop using branding on all their items, or to make it optional. She asked for Agnew’s support in calling for schools to limit the cost of uniform.

Agnew said: “There is a specific problem of a relatively small number of schools who use this requirement of monopoly suppliers for school uniforms and I don’t like it because it’s a pernicious way of excluding children from less well-off backgrounds.”

He asked Hardy to send him a list of any schools requiring parents to buy from monopoly suppliers.

Agnew said: “I’m a practical person and we just need to tell these schools to not be so ridiculous, frankly. I’m happy to amend the guidance.”

He added: “It’s just mindless bureaucracy on the part of these schools.”

“On the separate issue of these monopoly-type deals, I want to go after them. I hate monopolists in every form that they come and this is particularly pernicious,” Agnew added.

If schools wanted pupils to have an emblem on their uniform, then another option would be to buy a badge and iron it onto a blazer or jumper, the committee heard.

In November 2015, the Treasury promised to put the “best practice guidance” onto a statutory footing to “ensure that effective competition is used to drive better value for money”.

This has yet to happen, and on Wednesday education secretary Gavin Williamson failed to set a date for when the government will put school uniform guidance on a statutory footing.

Writing to Lord Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on Wednesday, Williamson said the government will put school uniform guidance on a statutory footing “when a suitable opportunity arises”, but offered no specific timeframe.

Williamson’s letter was in response to one written by Tyrie, which said that “action is needed” to tackle the costs of school uniform.

Tyrie said that every year the CMA sees a “surge” of complaints from parents and carers about “excessive” costs of uniforms when they are forced to purchase items from specific, often more expensive, suppliers.

There has been increasing scrutiny over the cost of school uniform and the requirement of some schools for parents to buy branded items from specific wholesalers.

Last year Schools Week revealed that an academy sponsor’s uniform supplier was charging almost three times the price for blazers in its grammar school than in its non-selective schools. Our investigation also revealed that one school was selling branded ‘drama socks’ for nearly £5 a pair.

Thousands of parents and children were also left in the lurch last year when deliveries from a uniform supplier were due to a “technical glitch”.

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  1. christopher smith

    This won’t wash. DfE. This has been a publicised disgrace for decades. There is no law to bring in since the uniform compulsion has no legal underpinning (How could it, in all honesty?). However your Government and Labour let State Schools prioritise it over their duty to teach and over your promise to facilitate educational access for all. All you need to do is issue a directive to State Schools that parents are entitled to an opt-out. Many will still wear uniform. There are less dictatorial ways of promoting school identity. The UK is Signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights’ Act Article 2, Protocol 1, (updated April 2018), Provided children’s attire is reasonable and not racist etc, it is within the law. The uniform compulsion devalues the UK’s Signature. Indifferent to family hardship (Forget the tokenistic, discretionary grants), mindful, i.a., of the Treasury’s needs, DfE and the colluding courts get away with blackmail. 95% of State Schools demand uniform. Not everybody likes uniform, as you well know. Why should it cost British parents £400 a year more to educate their children than Danish or German ones?

    • Regarding “The uniform compulsion devalues the UK’s Signature” I think uniform is part of what makes us Great. Allowing some parents to ‘opt-out of uniform’ will create a huge social gap. We already hear about Schools hiding students without suitable uniform or those not well behaved ’round the back’ when OFSTED visit. Sadly the rise of Academies has created a ‘Brand beast’ in corporate competition.

  2. Mark Watson

    Hmmmm, when you start referring to “the colluding courts getting away with blackmail” it starts to sound rather unhinged.

    As does stating that by having compulsory school uniform it “devalues” the UK’s position on human rights.

    • christopher smith

      Schools imposing uniform do so for ideological reasons. It is not essential to learning, as can be seen in mainland Europe and beyond. Since 95% of British state schools are uniformed, finding a non uniformed school is almost impossible and, unless there is an opt out as often in America, parents are forced to agree to the policy or risk having their children’s education compromised or even withheld. Parents are legally obliged to have their children educated. However schools are allowed to deny them their legal obligations (and rights) because their Government allows them to pursue a particular policy which is almost unique to the UK and which has no legislative scrutiny. The Parental – School Agreement, which is used to commit them to the uniform policy in writing, is unilateral and has no legal validity. In view of the fact that almost all schools operate such a policy – many grotesquely strict – I call this blackmail.
      The uniform compulsion sits uncomfortably with Britain’s own laws and its international undertakings. It is well known it skews the market and affects choice of school. The HR Act Article 2, Protocol 1 (Education) stipulates a child’s right to Education. To what extent the uniform imposition trivialises the sincerity of the UK’s domestic and international HR commitments remains judicially unclear. One question is relevant however: How does access to education in Britain compare with signatory countries to the same Act whose schools do not place specific sartorial requirements as a condition for their services?

      I would point that I am not committing to any specific opinion on the necessity of uniform myself. I have the deepest respect for teachers, many of whom are close friends. However unless it is a subject requirement (Health and Safety etc) compulsory uniform – as opposed to reasonable dress – has no place in the State Schools. It belongs solely in the Private Sector, where it is the object of willing participation and legitimate, as opposed to enforced, purchase.

      • Mark Watson

        The above rather reinforces my initial point.

        You may not agree with uniforms. Many people agree with you. Many other people do think they’re a good idea. They’re not all complicit in state-sponsored blackmail.

        And your references to the Human Rights Act, like so many other examples from other people, misses the point that there are many exceptions and restrictions on the general principles set out in the Act and ignores the fact that it does not have primacy over other legislation.

        • christopher smith

          Whether schools are complicit or co-operative is irrelevant. They are in the employ of the State and there is no law to stop them. It is the State that belongs in the dock. If there were an opt-out at least, the DfE and/or the schools would be above suspicion in this regard.
          The limitations of the HR Act and its non interventionist character are not part of my thread. I am examining one facet of British education and its possible bearing on the UK’s particular commitment to the HR Act. The fact that the UK’s laws prevail does not invalidate my question.

          • Mark Watson

            This is my last comment, as the frothing is becoming a little much.

            Schools aren’t in “the employ of the State”. In the case of academies rather the opposite as I’m sure Janet would be the first to suggest.

            They are though subject to the law. Plenty of them in fact. As well as various other binding rules, such as the Academies Financial Handbook or the myriad of regulations governing local authorities.

            What does invalidate your question is the incredible conspiracy theory that the courts, and presumably the entire British legal system, are colluding with blackmail. Something you haven’t backed up with anything approaching a theory, let alone fact.

  3. Lord Agnew is right when he says insisting on a monopoly supplier can be ‘pernicious’. On the face of it, that what the trust he founded, Inspiration, does. The website of Inspiration’s Great Yarmouth Charter Academy says parents can buy items from other outlets. However, they must ‘exactly match’ those supplied by the recommended supplier. As several of the items have embroidered an logo, it’s unlikely they’ll be found on the High Street.
    It would be more honest to stipulate a colour and list accepted styles easily purchased from any outlet.

    • Mark Watson

      I suppose the question is whether you can buy the embroidered logo of GYCA and stitch it onto other items of clothing.

      If so, then you’d be able to buy a blazer, polo shirt etc. wherever you want (as long as it’s a match with the standard) and attach the GYCA logo yourself, as the article above refers to.

  4. christopher smith

    Academies are run independently from the State. However the State is their paymaster, so in the final analysis they are their employer. This is reflected in the public criticism of some of levels of pay which will have come to your attention.
    The uniform compulsion is blackmail. Whether the State has provoked this situation or allowed it to come about is conjectural. The school is usually supported by the courts, despite the absence of appropriate legislation. I commented on compulsory uniform in State Schools and queried its legitimacy. It is your choice to infer that the courts and British legal system may both be conspiratorial in this practice. I wish you well.

  5. The cheaper alternatives on the ‘high street’ come from impoverished 3rd world countries using child labour in horrific conditions. No concern for ethical trading, the environment or child safety- how ironic.
    I met perchance and had a long chat with the Asda uniform buyer for the north of England on holiday once. She said that uniform is a loss-leader just to get families in store and they do not check, or care about where it comes from. Accredited dedicated uniform suppliers are now all ethically traded with most items being made from recycled plastics and closely monitor overseas factories and their working conditions, right down to how the spent dying products are disposed of. I think we should be more mindful of not only how our children are dressed, but the wellness of children everywhere, even those you cannot see in third world countries- we are not alone on this planet, although many choose to be blinkered if it doesn’t directly affect themselves. The answer is not to send parents to further support unethical trading that flies in the face of the environment.

    • Mark Watson

      I’m naturally cynical, so I wonder if indeed ALL ‘accredited’ uniform suppliers are quite so scrupulous, but you make a really good point here that hasn’t been mentioned yet.

      We do hear about the environmental impact and human cost of cheap ‘fast fashion’, and it’s quite clear that these issues should be borne in mind when discussing school uniforms.