Is your uniform policy fair on your families?

Written by: Fiona Aubrey-Smith & Emma Goto | Published:
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All well and good. However Europe - bar Ireland - sees it as irrelevant, as do many other ...

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Does your school’s required uniform put your families under financial pressure and give mixed messages about the spirit of equality? Fiona Aubrey-Smith and Emma Goto investigate

As your children returned to school this September you will have no doubt watched them pour into your classrooms full of anticipation wearing their fresh new school uniforms. However, there are many issues surrounding uniforms on which it is healthy to reflect at this time of year.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) review of research evidence found that “there is no robust evidence that introducing a school uniform will, by itself, improve academic performance, behaviour, or attendance” (EEF, 2019).

But from a leadership and governance perspective there is still a strong case for children to be in school uniform. Advocates argue that standardised clothing is a great leveller and plays a vital role in social equality – removing indicators of family income or lifestyle choices.

The branding of uniforms helps to unite those who wear it, bringing a much-needed sense of community and belonging. Equally, learning to wear clothing for specific purposes is an important life skill.

These arguments depend on a core message – that the uniform is genuinely standardised and that it is accessible to all those who are required to wear it. But the spirit of that core message is quite often lost when a uniform policy is considered and applied.

One parent explained: “My youngest son is due to start at his local state-funded junior school in September. The school has just implemented a new uniform policy which requires children to have a number of bespoke items that cannot be purchased in the local supermarket. Two branded sweaters, a branded tie, and a branded PE t-shirt came to £52 from the single supplier the school requires (excluding the optional blazer at a further cost of £30), with two plain shirts, two pairs of black trousers, PE shorts, socks, trainers and school shoes adding another £80.

“The total of £132 for each child as a minimum cost is a huge financial burden for parents, most of whom have two or more children requiring uniforms. Some schools only require items such as sweaters to be in the correct colour rather than branded, which gives a greater choice to parents about where these could be purchased. For a seven-year-old child the non-branded version of the uniform costs only £85 rather than £132 which is a huge difference.”

Pressure on household budgets

The summer holidays are often a financially difficult time for families. Children who are usually in receipt of free school meals do not benefit from this provision in school holidays and so meals need to be paid for. Wraparound care, breakfast clubs and even playtime snacks are not there during the holidays either.

But the financial pressure is wider than this. Families with both parents working often have to fund childcare throughout the holidays, adding many hundreds of pounds to their weekly out-goings. Where family members are available at home to care for the children there will still be greater grocery bills as well as entertainment or days out. Inevitably most families face huge budget pressure over the summer holidays.

Yet this is the same time of year that we ask parents to fund new uniforms with branded and expensive formal items (e.g. blazers) becoming more common.

One parent we spoke to faced a bill for a new school of nearly £600 for a single primary-aged child, with the school requiring different summer and winter uniforms, branded school bag, PE bag, branded coat, hat and scarf, different PE uniforms for indoor and outdoor PE lessons, bespoke tie, trainers kept in school, wellies, stationery, art apron and so on. These were only available through one supplier.

Worse still, the exact same clothes, unbranded, were around half the price from that same supplier. This family, with two children starting this new school, had to spend more on uniform that month than their mortgage.

Both of the examples we have highlighted are from schools which have strict policies reflecting their expectations around uniform. The junior school above, for example, states that “persistent non-compliance with the School Uniform and Appearance Policy will result in an appropriate sanction which may include exclusion”.
Critics of such policies argue that there are many reasons why a seven-year-old child may not be wearing the correct uniform – few of which are the choice of the child. What impact could this have on the child’s education? Is it proportional? Is it in the spirit of the arguments for having a school uniform in the first place?

These difficulties have led to some parents openly considering the costs of the school uniform and the implications of not being able to conform when deciding on which schools to apply for. Does this become a form of selection by income?

Similarly, parents we spoke to talk about their children having noticeably short trousers because they could not afford to keep up with the child’s growth. Other parents’ children simply had to get cold in winter as they could not afford the school sweater.

In one school, which had recently changed its uniform, the younger siblings were still wearing the old uniform many years later because it had been kept as hand-me-downs and the family could not afford to buy the new version. In other schools this was not even allowed, thus removing the choice and savings associated with hand-me-down uniforms.

In all of these cases, the children were very conscious that they stood out from their peers. This unintended consequence of a uniform change undermines the very reasons it had been introduced.

The wrong blazer, a 2018 Children’s Society report, stated: “Parents with children in state maintained schools told us that they spent £340 per year on school uniform costs for each secondary school child and £255 per year for each primary school child.”

The Children’s Society has also estimated that four million children are currently living in poverty in the UK. We must remember that many struggling and just-managing families do not have £50 to spare, let alone £255 or even £340.

This of course is not a new issue. The Department for Education’s school uniform guidance (DfE, 2013) itself states very clearly that “school uniform should be easily available to purchase and schools should seek to select items that can be purchased cheaply, for example in a supermarket or other good value shop”.

Similarly, “the governing body should be able to demonstrate how best value has been achieved”, and “exclusive single supplier contracts should be avoided”.

However, this does not always translate into practice.

Taking action on uniforms

So what can your leadership and governance teams do to address these inequalities? We encourage you to consider the following questions:

Q: How aware are you about the financial obligations that your policies are placing on your families?

  • Ask one of your staff or governors to price up a list of all the items that you ask your families to provide for each child – and for good practice obtain prices from two or three different shops. Remember to include summer and winter uniform variations, coats and shoes, and for different ages, as prices can vary depending on size.
  • Review the total cost of the items that your school requires children to have that they might not otherwise use outside of school. Consider not just the branded items (jumpers, blazers and ties), but also school or PE bags, art aprons, stationery/pencil cases, lunch-boxes, wellies etc. Remember that not all families will use these items outside of school (for example, wellies and lunch-boxes).
  • Add to this the other spend that families are asked to undertake – trips, donations, fairs, tickets, gifts etc. Add this up as a total per-child, per-year. How aware were you of this figure before this point? How does it compare to the average income of your catchment? Even in the most affluent areas there will be families who are struggling financially to keep up, often going unnoticed.

Q: How could you reduce these obligations?

  • Is there, realistically, sufficient choice for parents about where they buy uniform from? Are there at least two or three different shops that they can choose from? Are there non-branded versions of clothing that they can purchase from local supermarkets? If it is important for children to wear the school badge, consider selling this separately through the school, so that parents can sew it on to non-branded items.
  • Do you have a second-hand uniform shop that parents can use? Many PTAs run these mid-way through each term in readiness for children needing “the next size up” – many receive donations of uniform and takings go to the PTA fundraising budget. The best example we have seen is where each item has a tag with a code on it so that once sold, half of the money goes to the PTA and the other half goes to the family who donated the item. The codes keep the donors’ identities confidential. Some donors choose to donate the full amount to the PTA. If you do this, can you include reusable non-branded or non-uniform items like bags, coats and shoes?
  • Consider carefully how you might support your most vulnerable children in school. What help can be provided for families whose children are in receipt of Pupil Premium funding? In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales some children may qualify for a school clothing grant. However, where this is not available the government advises parents to ask schools directly. For example, Wallingford School has agreed to pay a minimum of 50 per cent of any Pupil Premium uniform requests and often pay for complete uniforms, including PE kit.


Revisit the spirit of having a uniform. If the intention is about bringing equality and building a sense of community then ask your leadership and governance teams to look carefully at the different groups of children across your school and how they are affected by your policy. Who sticks out and why? Most importantly, what are you going to do about it?

  • Fiona Aubrey-Smith is a former school leader and now Doctoral researcher who sits on a number of charitable trust boards. Email Read her previous best practice pieces for Headteacher Update, go to
  • Emma Goto is a senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Winchester.

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Dear Christopher,
I went to primary school in the US and wore no uniform and when I returned to the end of primary school here uniform was optional. I don't think this harmed my education in any way.
I personally do not believe uniform makes any difference to learning. I agree with you that schools should not be able to exclude children for uniform infringements.
I understand that lots of people feel uniform can be a leveller and on that basis I have no problem with children being asked to wear uniform but I would strongly argue that it should be something someone could purchase cheaply from their local supermarket.
Best Wishes,
Emma Goto

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All well and good. However Europe - bar Ireland - sees it as irrelevant, as do many other countries. It is not supported by everyone here and yet British State schools are allowed to deprive even reasonably dressed children of their education for not wearing it. The compulsion is without legal basis anyway. Make it voluntary!! There are other HR compliant ways of esprit de corps. At the moment, British State schools are allowed to prioritise uniform over their duty to teach and over their wards’ education. What is the DfE playing at? Compulsory uniform belongs in the private sector, where it is the object of acceptance and willing expenditure. The cost alone is another issue.
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