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How the schoolwear industry, schools, and government can work together to bring down school uniform costs for families

The Schoolwear Association sets out its advice to schools on implementing the new government guidance on school uniform costs

The Schoolwear Association sets out its advice to schools on implementing the new government guidance on school uniform costs


School uniforms sit at the heart of schools and our community right across the country. They act as a social leveller and help to reduce bullying, they promote pride and belonging among pupils and the wider community, and they ultimately boost children’s academic performance.

How the industry is supporting families

As the leading organisation representing the school uniform industry, the Schoolwear Association understands more than anyone the benefits that school uniforms bring to pupils, parents, teachers and head teachers alike. The provision of high quality, long-lasting school uniforms is our fundamental purpose.

However, we also understand the financial pressures on families up and down the country, particularly now with the current cost-of-living crisis and in the wake of the pandemic.

We have always believed that the cost of a school uniform, and other expenses like books and stationery that parents have to meet, should never be a barrier to attending a particular school.

We are therefore proud that, over the last year, the industry has worked closely with schools to bring down the combined average basket cost of compulsory secondary school uniform and sportswear – from £101.19 per pupil in 2020 to £93 in 2021, a fall of over 8%.

Our members, through our Code of Practice, have also long supported families to meet the cost of uniforms, for example through the provision of second-hand uniform sales and swap shops, payment plans, and voucher schemes.

The need to abolish the ‘school uniform tax’

However, to continue to support families to meet the costs of uniforms, we believe that the Government must now take action too by abolishing VAT on all school-specific uniform items – the so-called ‘school uniform tax’ – to save them millions of pounds a year.

Each family would make significant savings in clothing their child in specific school uniform across the lifetime of their time at school, at what is a relatively limited cost to the taxpayer (an estimated £9 million).

This is important too to ensure that the tax system treats all children with parity, as it is unfair that VAT is currently charged on uniform items for children aged 14 years old or older, or taller or larger than the average, but not for younger or smaller children.

Now that the UK is no longer bound by the European Union VAT Directive, the timing is right for the Government to take advantage of our new tax freedoms and abolish VAT on school-specific uniform items.

In support of our campaign, we have recently launched a petition to call on the Government to scrap VAT on school uniform, and have set out further information explaining why this is necessary in a more detailed policy report.

What does the new government guidance mean for schools?

A further opportunity to help families meet the cost of uniforms comes in the form of the recently published Department for Education (DfE) guidance on the ‘Cost of school uniforms’.

The Schoolwear Association welcomes this guidance, and believes it takes a balanced and proportionate approach that will help parents to get value for money from uniforms, without creating unreasonable burdens on schools or uniform suppliers.

However, working with schools, we know that there are still some uncertainties about how they should implement the guidance, particularly as the wording is deliberately flexible and not prescriptive. For example, schools are advised to keep their uniform costs “reasonable” and branded items “to a minimum”, with no explanation of what this means for them in practice.

To help schools navigate this guidance, the Schoolwear Association has produced a Q&A factsheet for school leaders and governors to give our advice on how best schools should interpret and implement it appropriately.

We are also organising a free webinar for school leaders and governors at 4.30pm on Thursday 9th June to provide additional advice and answer questions on the guidance, and we are pleased that we will be joined by the DfE then too. To register to attend our webinar, please visit the following link.

Our advice to schools on implementing the guidance

In most cases, schools will already be fully compliant with the new guidance, or will only need to make minor changes to their policies, in order to comply with it.

Our overriding advice to school leaders is therefore not to panic, and to work with governors and their suppliers to see how their existing uniform policies line up with the expectations of the new guidance.

We have set out a summary of our advice and key facts covering decision making, conducting tenders, costs, and branded items below.

Our advice and key facts on decision making

  • School or trust governing boards are required to review their current uniform policies, but this does not necessarily mean that changes need to be made.
  • Schools have the flexibility to consider the cost and value for money implications of their own uniforms, without being prescriptive about caps on total costs or the number of branded items.
  • School leaders should not panic or to make snap changes to their uniform policies, but instead should work with governors and their suppliers to see how their existing uniform policies line up with the expectations of the new guidance.
  • If changes do need to be made, schools should work with their suppliers to ensure that there is a sensible transition period in place, taking into account supply chain and ordering timescales.

Our advice and key facts on uniform contracts and conducting tenders

  • Schools should always have a contract with their uniform supplier where branded items are mandated.
  • Schools are able to maintain sole supply arrangements where “regular tendering competitions are run where more than one supplier can compete for the contract and where the best value is secured”. This contract should be re-tendered at least every five years.
  • Schools with more than one uniform supplier will not have to undertake formal procurement processes as these are only required where sole supply arrangements are in place.
  • If changes do need to be made to a uniform policy, schools should work with their suppliers to ensure that there is a sensible transition period in place, taking into account supply chain and ordering timescales.
  • The most important consideration for schools to take into account when re-tendering is cost and value for money of uniforms, but this includes the quality and durability of the garment, which is a key consideration as the longer a garment lasts the lower the lifetime cost for parents.
  • Tendering requirements differ depending on the size of the contract – the higher the value of the contract the more rigorous the tender process will need to be.
  • Schools or trusts with larger contracts will need to undertake competitive procurement processes, but schools with smaller contracts will just be required to source a range of quotes from suppliers.
  • Schools should not rush into tendering or re-tendering, but should work with their suppliers on next steps.
  • The Schoolwear Association has previously developed best practice tendering guidance to help schools navigate complex procurement rules and appoint the best uniform supplier for their needs.

Our advice and key facts on uniform costs

  • Schools must “ensure that their uniform is affordable” and take into account the total cost of their uniforms.
  • Schools should be able to demonstrate how best value for money has been achieved when developing or making any change to their uniform policy, though there is recognition that quality and durability of the garment is a factor in this.
  • The guidance does not introduce a cap on the cost of garments, leaving it to schools themselves to interpret whether their uniforms are affordable or not.
  • Across our membership, we have calculated that the average basket cost of compulsory school uniform and sportswear is £93 per pupil for state secondary schools.
  • The guidance recognises that the quality and durability of a garment are important considerations alongside its base cost.
  • Schools are required to ensure that second-hand uniform is available for parents to acquire, and information about this should be published on their websites.
  • The Schoolwear Association’s members are happy to advise schools how to set up second-hand uniform provision, and in many cases already do this.

Our advice and key facts on branded items

  • Schools must “keep the use of compulsory branded items to a minimum” for both uniform and sportswear items and to “limit their use to low cost or long-lasting items”.
  • Schools should carefully consider which items should be branded, with the guidance implying that requiring school logos on socks, coats, bags, and trainers would be “unnecessary”.
  • With respect to sportswear, it also suggests that it would be “unnecessary” for schools to specify that pupils wear different shorts for football and hockey.
  • The guidance does not introduce a cap on the number of branded items, leaving it to schools themselves to interpret whether their uniforms are reasonable or not.
  • Across our membership, we calculated that the average number of compulsory branded items across state secondary schools is 5.6 per pupil.
  • We advise schools to consider that abolishing certain compulsory branded items could increase costs for parents, against the spirit of the guidance.

Matthew Easter

Chair, the Schoolwear Association

About the Schoolwear Association

The Schoolwear Association represents retailers, suppliers, and manufacturers involved in the supply of school uniform, working to drive up standards and embracing a set of core values to make sure that parents get a fair deal.

Our membership includes more than 250 SMEs, which are principally local family businesses, based in high street locations that support their local communities. Together, our members clothe more than three quarters of the country’s schoolchildren, providing sustainable, long-lasting and affordable school uniform for families across the UK.

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