AS part of The Yorkshire Post’s series – What the new Prime Minister should do for Yorkshire – Emma Hardy MP makes the case for school uniform reform.
A FEW weeks ago, I sat in a joint meeting of the Education, and Work and Pensions, Select Committees listening to heartbreaking stories from families about holiday hunger.
It is horrendous that we live in the seventh largest economy in the world but some of our children are unable to eat when they are not in school. After nearly a decade of austerity, I am incredibly angry about this but not surprised. What was slightly more surprising to me was the role that school uniform has in exacerbating an already horrible situation for those living in poverty.
In the hearing, we were told by the parents that they sometimes had to spend upwards of £350 for each child each summer to buy new branded uniform from a designated retailer. We were also told that the bill for branded uniform was often greater for children at secondary schools.
This steep cost for branded items comes at the end of an expensive time for parents who will have had additional child care and food costs during the summer holiday. The parents giving evidence said some went without food or other essentials during the summer months to help cover these additional costs.
The frustrating part about insisting on branded uniform is that there is such an easy alternative. The DfE research report on the Cost of School Uniform, published in June 2015, proves that average total expenditure was less expensive when items could be purchased from any shop.
By removing the requirement for parents to buy an individual school branded uniform from a particular shop and allowing them to buy generic supermarket items, schools could dramatically lower the cost of uniforms for parents.
As a former teacher, I completely understand that schools want to make sure that their pupils are smart ambassadors for the school, but I completely reject the idea that children need to be dressed in an expensive, branded school blazer from a particular supplier to achieve this.
In 2015, the Competition and Markets Authority wrote to headteachers, school governing boards and school uniform suppliers to remind them of their obligations to parents under competition law and not to stipulate a particular shop and this may need to be reissued. It is universally accepted that schools are underfunded but this should not mean that it is acceptable for schools to profit from using individual uniform suppliers.
In 2015 the HM Treasury publication, A better deal: boosting competition to bring down bills for families and firms, indicated that the Government would change the law on best practice guidance to avoid schools having expensive exclusivity arrangements for uniforms but this change has never materialised.
There appears to be a primary and secondary school divide on this issue with primary schools having a more relaxed attitude and requiring a simple colour. The climate change crisis should provoke schools into thinking differently.
Having non-branded items makes reusing and recycling much easier. In Hull West and Hessle, I am establishing a Re:Uniform scheme where parents can drop off uniform items at various collection points, have it sorted and washed and redistributed at events at the end of the summer.
I’m really proud that the Welsh Labour Government has recently updated its statutory guidance on school uniforms to mean that Welsh state schools need to revise their uniform codes to avoid exclusive deals that force parents to buy from a single supplier, and must ensure that uniform items are widely available and avoid expensive logos and designs.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for either the Tory government in Westminster or the SNP government in Holyrood. Both have given warm words to the idea without doing anything of real substance to change things.
I very much hope that the new leader of the Conservative Party will instruct their Education Secretary to bring updated school uniform guidance before the Commons at the earliest possibility. Because parents aren’t stupid and a quick look across the border to Wales will show definitively that there is a party that is willing to do so.