MP accuses government of breaking promises on school uniform costs

An MP has blasted the government in Parliament over the unreasonable price of school uniforms, accusing it of breaking its promise to take action against exorbitant costs.

Sarah Jones, the MP for Croydon Central, claimed that 2017 marked the start of a second new school year without any action, even though ministers pledged in 2015 to make guidance on uniforms legally binding.

This would have given parents the power to challenge extortionate uniform requirements.

The guidance requests that schools make the cost of uniform a top priority and “keep compulsory branded items to a minimum”, but it is not statutory.

Government-commissioned research in 2015 found that over a quarter of secondary schools required three or more uniform items with a badge or logo, while the number of schools requiring parents to buy uniform from a specialist supplier doubled between 2007 and 2015.

“The government has failed to deliver on its promises and for a second successive summer parents have continued to feel the pinch of high school-uniform costs,” Jones said.

“There are serious competition concerns around school uniform pricing. It’s incredibly frustrating for parents to see supermarkets competing and offering very low prices when their child’s school requires items to be purchased from a sole supplier. There are particular concerns over academies, where branding of uniform seems to be increasing.”

She mentioned a constituent, who had described how her daughter’s academy required parents to buy different coloured sweatshirts for every academic year.

Jones called on the government to immediately deliver on its promise to make uniform guidance statutory, and to consider VAT changes post-Brexit.

She also demanded further action to help parents, such as setting limits on badged items of uniforms or even an overall price cap, saying “parents have been getting a bad deal for too long”.

She argued that Brexit offers the potential for parents to save more on uniform costs. A campaign to abolish VAT on secondary school uniform was blocked by EU rules in 2007, but estimates now suggest that parents could save between £100 and 200 million if the UK takes control of VAT rates post-Brexit.

Parents of secondary-aged children currently pay 20 per cent VAT on uniform.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All children, regardless of background or ability, should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and we are absolutely clear that no family should be at a disadvantage because of the price of a school uniform.

“Our existing guidance is clear that when setting their uniform policies, schools should keep costs to a minimum and be affordable for everyone.”

The extent of sole-supplier arrangements for uniforms has previously triggered intervention by the CMA, which warned that such arrangements force parents to pay up to £10 extra per item and could be in breach of competition law.

A spokesperson for the Competition and Markets Authority told Schools Week today: “We understand that parents and carers can find the cost of school uniforms a real burden. We have written to schools reminding them that ensuring their uniform can be bought at more than one shop or supplier will help to keep the price down.

“We also specifically urged head teachers and governing bodies to listen to concerns from parents or carers and, when appointing suppliers, to ensure that value for money is taken into account.”

In October 2015, Schools Week reported that schools were still insisting parents buy uniforms from exclusively-appointed suppliers, despite government advice and a letter from the CMA urging against it.

The CMA’s letter called on headteachers and governing bodies to prioritise affordability, and review exclusive arrangements with suppliers “with a view to ensuring that future school uniform policy looks to drive competition between suppliers and retailers”.

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  1. Just yesterday a school hit the national news when pupils were sent home for wearing grey trousers which were not from the school’s sole supplier and didn’t match the mandatory grey. Parents complained the uniform trousers were more expensive than ones from the High Street.
    It’s time the DfE guidance re uniform was made statutory to avoid such daftness as well as reducing cost for parents. A cynic might say some schools choose expensive items of clothing to deter children of parents who can’t afford them – a case of ‘Asda blazers not welcome here’.

    • Lisa Speight

      Janet, I raised the sole supplier issue which forces parents to pay more than twice the supermarket price of a similar pair of school trousers with Sunderland Councillor Robert Oliver who had come out in support of Kepier School’s uniform policy. He replied by email to say that parents had had plenty of advance warning about the new uniform rules and that if they were not happy with these, they could have chosen another school for their child. Is this councillor therefore supporting the type of “Selection policy by Income Threshold” as highlighted by the Children’s Commissioner back in her 2014 report?

    • Mark Watson

      I think one gets a sense of the person writing this story, and the desperate attempt to whip up indignant hysteria, when the third paragraph is:
      “In scenes likened to “life in North Korea”, those who failed were sent home.”
      Because yes, sending a child home for wearing the wrong clothes is just like life in North Korea. Looks like the Guardian is taking lessons in journalism from the Sun.

  2. I have been writing to my MP Amber Rudd for over a year and she has done nothing but pass my letters onto DfE (something I’d already done myself) then she would pass their waste of time reply to me, she did however pass me a letter from Justine Greening dated this year, reiterating their promise to put matters on a statutory footing, now apparently they have no plans to change the current procedures no explanation as to why and she did not bother to challenge the change in mind, utterly useless woman.

    For those who have had enough please sign the petition on the end of this link and share it on your social media…

  3. By all means, let’s have school uniforms, but this must be coupled with a statutory requirement for ALL schools to provide a second-hand uniform store within school grounds where good quality seconds can be redistributed at a fair price. This happened at my school in the 1980s when times were financially hard. And as for shoes, schools often quote style brochures showing shoes retailing at £25 to £35. These shoes are not real leather, the stiching leaks and there are no width fittings. A quailty pair of boys black leather dress shoes will cost you £48 per child/teen. What worries me is the psychology behind all this. How awful it must be for a child who wears the wrong thing and gets humiliated by some poor teacher who is just carrying out orders. Heads often say the reason for “smart dress” is to get ready for the world of work. I disagree. Children go to school to be educated and learn. Maybe sixth form is the place to train students for wearing “office attire”?

    • Mark Watson

      I think the suggestion of a statutory requirement to provide a second-hand uniform store is an excellent idea.
      I think the psychology question is an important one, but borrowing someone else’s argument I heard on the radio recently, removing the uniform requirement and letting children choose what to wear could cause much more psychological problems with children feeling under pressure to wear the ‘right’ clothes. I’m sure there is just as much scope, if not more, for children to be humiliated for wearing the wrong thing when it’s a free-for-all.
      From the arguments I’ve heard, my view is that I don’t think uniforms really improve learning outcomes, and I think the ‘preparing for office life’ argument is rubbish. However, I think their advantage is that they avoid the bigger potential problems of having children (and particularly teenagers) choose their own clothes. Purely my (non-expert) opinion.

  4. Jenny Lloyd

    Sutton trust finds uniform doesn’t make a difference yet schools continue to bully families into overspending on school clothes: badged garments and generic garments. It’s scandalous. Especially given wage caps, benefit cuts etc.