As the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill makes its way through parliament, with its report stage scheduled for November, Andrew Lewer presents the case for sole-supplier arrangements
There has been much debate of late over school uniforms, in the House of Commons, in the press and on social media. Themes within this discussion have included: Whether you can make school uniforms more affordable (and the distinction between price and value), whether children should continue to wear them in a Covid-safe society and whether aspects of branded uniforms should be restricted.
School uniform suppliers are frequently attacked in the media as an example of exploitative business; however, it has been my experience that they try to keep costs down and that as a sector they act in a particularly responsible manner. The Schoolwear Shop in my constituency certainly does.
Specialist suppliers have developed schoolwear that is not only low-cost but sustainable and made from recycled materials. These ethical practices are clearly distinct from the waste of fast fashion, but also enhance the hard-wearing nature of the uniforms they sell. Seeking good quality, longer-lasting clothing as well as innovative ways of supporting parents on lower incomes has long been a priority for many uniform suppliers. Total Clothing of Peterborough, for instance, arrange swapping events and provide a myriad of advice on fundraising, both on their website and in person.
Price does not always represent best value
My encounters with businesspeople in this sector, as well as messages and information from others, show me that the sector cares about the schools and the parents they serve and understands the price pressures many parents struggle with. As I said in my speech on this in Parliament in March, price does not always represent best value. For example, someone who must buy three pairs of trousers at £10 each, instead of one pair that lasts three times as long for £25, is not saving any money.
The fact that the industry tries to help with those issues through durability and ethical sourcing shows that there is more to value than the sticker price, and that is something which schools, parents and the Department for Education should remember.
Tendering for sole-supply arrangements can keep prices down, and I welcome the retention of this option within the Government’s guidance. I very much hope that when the guidance goes back out to consultation, the schoolwear sector, and especially its best exemplars, will get a full opportunity to contribute and explain the special business model the sector requires, which we rarely hear about.
It is vital that any new legislation does not underestimate the importance of the sole-supplier relationship. Retailers are most able to help develop reasonable uniform policies with schools that they have a sole-supply contract with. This allows parents to get the best deal possible for their children’s uniform.
In addition, where they exist, parents can access uniforms in the full range of sizes and colours pupils need, all year round. Competition of course plays an important role in ensuring uniform costs are kept as low as possible. Tendered sole-supplier arrangements also reinforce one of the key benefits of school uniform, that the clothes are of a uniform nature, not just roughly the same colour or design, which can lead to all the problems of not having a uniform at all: ‘My black trousers are Gucci, yours are from George.’
But it is vital that competition takes place at the point of selecting a supplier, not at the point of sale. It simply does not work if schools work with more than one retailer at a time. This is perhaps the most misunderstood element of the whole debate on uniform and achieving value for money for parents: there is a competitive process, it just takes place at a different stage.
Similarly, if there is more than one supplier, retailers have absolutely no idea how much uniform to order and keep in stock and, because purchasing power is reduced, the retail price that families pay will not be as low as if the school were working on a sole-supplier basis with the retailer. This means families will not be able to get the uniform they need and they will pay more money for it and goes against the very principle of making uniform more affordable.
Seventy per cent of schools say they work on a sole-supplier basis for school uniforms because it guarantees quality and access to uniform. This must be protected in any new legislation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a competitive tender take place when a school selects a supplier, but the result must be to select a sole supplier, not multiple suppliers.