Expensive, branded, compulsory: MPs pass law targeting excessive school uniform costs

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Expensive branded and compulsory items of school uniform and PE kit are set to be outlawed when new statutory guidance is published.

The Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Act 2021 received Royal Assent last week and will come into force at the end of June in England and Wales.

The Department for Education (DfE) has promised new statutory guidance on the costs of school uniform items. This is expected in the autumn.

There have long been concerns that some schools’ uniform policies have been a barrier to education for many disadvantaged families. In some cases, uniform costs have acted as a form of covert selection.

Research published last year by The Children’s Society (2020) found that parents had to spend around £340 per year on school uniforms for each secondary school child and £315 for each primary-aged child.

Worryingly, more than one in 10 parents said they fell into debt to pay for school uniforms; one in five said they cut back on essentials such as food in order to afford uniforms.

The study also found that a quarter of parents said that the cost of school uniform led to their children wearing ill-fitting, unclean or incorrect uniform.

The annual cost of schooling research from charity Parentkind, meanwhile, has consistently shown school uniforms to be the biggest concern for families (alongside the cost of school trips).

The Act requires schools to follow the new statutory guidance on uniform costs, instructing them to keep prices down. In passing the Act into law, MPs were particularly concerned about the high cost of branded items, and the DfE says that the forthcoming guidance will tell schools to consider high street alternatives.

A DfE statement added: “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.”

The Children’s Society research also raised specific concerns about schools demanding that branded items are bought from specific suppliers. It states: “Many schools also require certain items to be branded or be bought from specific suppliers. Our data showed that two-thirds of parents with children in secondary schools had to buy two or more items from a specific supplier, while more than half of primary school parents had to buy two or more items from a specific supplier.”

The DfE has said that its guidance will “advise schools to make sure that when they take up contracts with uniform suppliers, they are competitive and transparent in order to keep costs down”.

Mark Russell, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said: “This legislation will be vital in ensuring that school uniforms become more affordable for families across the country.

“Young people told us back in 2014 that high-priced school uniforms had a huge impact on their ability to make the most of their education. We hope this new law will make children feel more equal to their class-mates and make life easier for struggling families.”

Commenting on the legislation, James Bowen, director of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “It’s important to remember that a large number of schools already work extremely hard to ensure that their uniform is affordable for families. Many schools also run schemes to provide support for families who might be struggling with the cost of uniform.

"That being said, we fully support the move to ensure that uniform remains as affordable as possible in every school. We know that an increasing number of families have come under financial pressure due to the pandemic, so measures that could reduce the cost of uniform are certainly welcome.”

Baroness Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, added: “Councils have been concerned about the growing cost of school uniforms, with branded compulsory items of clothing making uniform and PE kits too expensive for many families.

“This new law will help parents avoid being pushed into debt in order for their children to look smart by making it more affordable, especially for those with more than one child to kit out.”

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