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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The incredible cost of school uniforms and how a group in Leeds is trying to offset it

Kitting out a child’s yearly school wardrobe costs over £300 on average, with more schools opting for logo-only uniforms despite new legislation.

Schoolchildren across Britain are set to return to face-to-face teaching in the upcoming weeks, with some schools in places like Bradford and Leeds set to return before September, to make up for the lost time in July, when some shut their doors early because of rising Covid-19 cases and mass self-isolation for kids that got ‘pinged’ by the NHS Test and Trace app.

Every child in the UK has the right to free education, with approximately 93% of pupils aged between 3 and 18 attending a state-funded school, with the remaining 7% of kids either being homeschooled or attending fee-paying private or independent schools.

Within the education system, there are many ‘hidden’ costs, which researchers suggest are “failing families living in poverty” and has only been exacerbated through the Coronavirus pandemic.  Meals and school trips are some examples, but one of the key issues that is hotly contested is school uniforms.

Kids learning from home didn’t have to wear uniform when learning from home. Image by Thomas Park.

There is no law that says children in Britain must wear a uniform, but since The Elementary Education Act 1870 which introduced free education for all children, uniform has been the norm, with over 90% of schools across Britain requiring it. Schools set their own uniforms, and the consequences for pupils breaking the rules set.

Schools have the ability and often assert the power to temporarily suspend or even expel pupils for breaking the uniform guidelines, regardless of the circumstances or finances of the family. In 2018 and 2019, there were 7,894 permanent exclusions and 438,265 fixed-notice exclusions.

Failure to adhere to uniform rules is not a registered reason for exclusion by the Office of National Statistics so the true number of exclusions because of uniform is unknown. The most common reason for both permeant and fixed-notice exclusions is for “persistent disruptive behaviour”.

Despite recent legislation instructing schools to keep their uniform prices and logo requirement to a minimum, the price of uniform is continuing to increase, with more schools requiring logo-only items.

On 29 April of this year, the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Act 2021 was passed in Parliament, which will require schools to follow new statutory guidance on uniform costs, instructing them to keep prices down.

The cross-party support for the Bill recognised the costs parents face for school uniform, particularly for branded items, and the statutory guidance will tell schools to consider high street alternatives.

The Education Act 2021 was recently passed in Parliament, requiring schools to keep uniform costs low.

Talking about the Bill, School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said: “School uniforms are important in establishing the right ethos in a school. They also help to improve behaviour and a sense of belonging and identity. But we want to be sure they are affordable for parents.

“This new law will help to save families money and ensure the cost of a blazer or shirt is never a barrier to accessing the best possible education.”

The Department will publish the statutory guidance in the autumn this year, which will focus on ensuring costs are reasonable for families of all backgrounds and giving parents the best value for money.

It will also include measures on encouraging second-hand uniform, schools’ arrangements with suppliers, and ensuring parents have access to clear information about uniform policies.

Children’s rights advocacy charity the Children’s Society found that parents and carers pay on average £315 for primary school children’s uniform and £337 for young people in secondary school, which works out about £326 on average.

In 2015, the average for a year’s worth of school uniform for secondary school kids costs approximately £212.88 and £196.59 for pupils in primary school.  This is an increase of just over £124 for secondary pupils, and £119 for primary school kids.

The costliest items of uniform include blazers that on average can reach up to £40 or more. Coats, shoes, school bags, and jumpers and dresses are also some of the pricier items.  Shockingly, gender divides start early, with parents of girls facing higher costs for the uniforms.

“It is robbery is what it is. I can’t see why they don’t just do away with uniforms like American schools. I have three girls, one starting high school in September and it has cost me over £150 for uniform just for her and I’ve still got to get her some shoes.”

For girls, the average cost of primary school uniforms from Year 1 to 6, totals £66.76 more than the cost for boys’ uniforms; £1,422.26 for girls and £1,355.50 for boys during the same period. Research from Deichmann, suggests that the reason for this is because “of the cost differences between blouses and shirts, skirts and trousers, and dresses and shorts”.

The Children’s Society’s 2020 survey (of around 1,000 parents across the UK) found that many parents struggle to pay these high costs with nearly a quarter (23%) of parents in the survey said that the cost of school uniform had meant their child had worn ill-fitting, unclean, or incorrect uniform.

School shoes are one of the most costly items of uniforms, with some schools enforcing strict policies on what is allowed or not.

Talking about the cost of uniforms for kids in Leeds, a father to three girls Daniel Stillings, said: “It is robbery is what it is. I can’t see why they don’t just do away with uniforms like American schools.

“I have three girls, one starting high school in September and it has cost me over £150 for uniform just for her and I’ve still got to get her some shoes.”

Wearing the wrong uniform can lead to children being bullied, feeling left out or even being excluded from school. The charity estimates that nearly half a million children have been sent home from school because the costs meant they were wearing incorrect uniform.

Lorraine, a parent and governor of a high school in Leeds said: “My son recently left secondary school but after being astounded about the prices of uniform, I did a bit of an investigation into school uniforms myself.

“When my son was as around eight or nine, the official school uniform supplier, Rawcliffes Schoolwear Centre, was charging around £70 for a blazer which is outrageous. Luckily, the school’s parents’ association ran a second-hand uniform shop from its premises a few times a week and that is where I got most of my son’s uniform when he needed it, but the price for the uniform brand new is out of this world.

“We found a different uniform shop, Whitakers Schoolwear, known as Uniformity at the time, that supplied the branded items for his secondary school, and they were selling blazers for around £25. It is still expensive for some families but not in the realm of the cost of the other uniform.

School uniform supplier’s put pressure on schools to not split profits with other shops. 

“I was in touch with a single mum from South Leeds that was explaining that her daughter was getting in trouble, missing lessons, and sent home from school because her skirt didn’t have the little logo patch on, it was ridiculous. The school trousers didn’t require the patch and the patch wasn’t available then to buy on its own, so you could sew it on yourself as a more affordable option.”

Lorraine found that after speaking to the owner Uniformity and found out that schools in the area are pressured to stick with the same, and sometimes the only supplier because they received cashback for every logo item sold. She said: “I found out that some schools only have one official supplier because they get a percentage of the money back with every item sold, and that the owners of the uniform shops, say ‘well if you split the supply between two shops you will potentially only get half the cashback that you get now’.

“The cashback is legitimate”, says Lorraine. “It goes into a pot for the school to help pay for children to go on school trips who can’t afford it and things like that, but most parents do not know that there is this cost built-in to their children’s uniforms and it something that I think people really need to know.”

Some councils offer help with school uniform costs, however, Leeds does not. On their website, it states “we do not provide financial help with school uniforms but your child’s school or a uniform exchange may be able to help.”

One way to offset the massive cost of school uniforms is through donating, swapping, and exchanging good quality used uniform, instead of putting them into landfills or into fabric rag boxes. Since 2020, Zero Waste Leeds has facilitated a free city-wide unform exchange, through Social Business Brokers CIC, a social enterprise that has been working for over ten years on creative, collaborative approaches to tackling social and environmental problems in Leeds.

Back to school

The Leeds School Uniform Exchange project is active across all parts of the city with 70% of Leeds schools covered.

In the first ten weeks of the project’s interactive map being live on their website, a tool that can help parents find the closest uniform exchange or pop-up shops, over 3000 items of uniform were reused resulting in savings of 600kg in potential textile waste, 8.1m litres of water, 10,800kg CO2 emissions and £50k in uniform costs.

Suzanne Nicholls, communications manager from Zero Waste Leeds said: “The uniform exchange is both about environmental and social issues. The cost of new uniforms is enormous, both to the parents and to the environment. There were some small-scale uniform exchange programmes happening across Leeds before we launched but with the funding we have now, we have made it so that 70% of the schools in Leeds is covered in one way or another.

“The uniform exchange ranges from organisations, schools, and community groups running their own swap days, to local parents finding each other on the Facebook group and organising a swap. We have found that more people want to donate their kid’s uniform, that perhaps they didn’t wear because of the pandemic or grown out of, than people who use the service. We want everyone, to partake and use the clothes donated so that second-hand uniform is the new normal and is the first port of call before dishing out for new items.”

To find out about how to get involved with the Leeds School Uniform Exchange, you can visit their website here or join the Facebook page.

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