School uniform is an unnecessary expense driving some parents into debt

The fact that parents on the poverty line are having to spend up to two thirds of their income on clothing for their children is scandalous and immoral

Susan Elkin
Thursday 15 August 2013 13:09 BST
(Getty Images)

Parents forced to spend £285 to kit out an 11 year old with uniforms, coats and bags? How can any school possibly justify it? 

According to The Big Stitch Up, a survey of 13 state schools by the charity Family Action, that shameful £285 is now the average cost at secondary level. For a primary school child the cost is less – a ‘mere’ £156.

I have argued for decades that school uniform causes more problems than it solves. A piece I wrote about it for The Independent 20 years ago in 1993 was even used for a GCSE comprehension paper.  Insistence on corporate dress for children and teenagers leads to strings of distracting petty rules which are either time-consumingly enforced or ignored so that the uniform isn’t, well uniform, so why bother?

When it comes to parcels it’s the quality which counts, not the wrapping. The same applies to school pupils.  School uniform may please head teachers when they see a sea of neat sameness in assembly.  Some parents claim to like it too, but no one has ever been able to explain to me convincingly how it helps learning and achievement. And, as a senior teacher obliged to enforce uniform rules, I had no answers for the pupil who asked me, for instance, what the colour of her shirt or her proscribed nail varnish had to do with her education.  

Education in this country is supposed to be free at the point of delivery – unless you’re in a position to opt out of the maintained sector, which over 90 per cent of families are not. “Free” is not a relative term. School attendance should cost nothing. If you say to parents  their children can attend a particular school only if they can find £285 for special clothes, then education is no longer free.

Family Action finds that parents on the poverty line are having to spend up to two thirds of their income in August on (completely unnecessary in my view) clothing for their children. That is both scandalous and immoral.

One of the schools surveyed, according to the report, is taking academy status this autumn. That means ‘rebranding’ as if it were a commercial business. Have we completely forgotten that schools are different from supermarkets and mobile phone companies?  And with the new image, of course, comes a new uniform - £225 instead of £99 which is what it cost for the old school. Result? 70 per cent of parents have had to take out loans to pay for it.

Naturally there are government guidelines about this as about so much else. As usual they are toothless and ignored with impunity. The advice from the Department for Education is that schools should ‘make certain that uniform chosen is affordable and does not act as a barrier to parents when choosing a school.’ Has anyone told that to the academy with its £225 uniform? And what does ‘affordable’ mean anyway. Perhaps you can afford something which I can’t or vice versa.

Some local authorities have discretionary uniform grants, but it is a matter of luck whether the one you live in happens to be one of them. There are sometimes local charities and trusts which are good at helping parents with school uniform too – I had access to one of these when I was dealing with uniform issues in a school and could get small grants for needy families. But provision is patchy.

Academies are well funded. Rather than spending money on fancy logos, hotel style reception areas and high salaries for administrators perhaps, if they are determined on a fancy uniform, they should be prepared to provide some of the required items free of charge for pupils whose families are unable to pay for them.

Family Action wants schools to stop insisting on branded uniforms and allow parents to buy plain standard garments such as black trousers and white shirts wherever they wish. Personally I’d go several steps further and ask them to forget school uniform completely. It would save parents money and teachers many an avoidable confrontation. And there might be more time and energy to spend on teaching and learning.

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