School uniform: New rules signal crackdown on branded items

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

​Schools must keep branded uniform items “to a minimum”, limiting their use to “low-cost or long-lasting items”, new statutory guidance states. Pete Henshaw takes an in-depth look at the new rules

Second-hand uniform items must also be made available and high street items must be allowed. Meanwhile, single supplier contracts should be avoided, and contracts should be retendered at least every five years.

All schools are now required to review their uniform policies in light of the new guidance and schools must be compliant with the bulk of the requirements by September 2022, with full compliance expected by summer 2023.

Importantly, schools are expected to have taken steps to adhere to the new guidance before parents buy uniform for the academic year beginning in September 2022.

The new guidance (DfE, 2021) has come after a Private Members’ Bill by Mike Amesbury MP was given cross-party support in April.

It follows research commissioned by the DfE showing that parents can save £50 on average if they can buy school uniform items from any shop, as opposed to being forced to buy items from a designated store or the school (Davies, 2015).

As well as value for money, the guidance tells schools to ensure durability of uniform items and to put in place arrangements to make second-hand uniform items available to parents.

As well as saving families money and making school uniforms affordable, the aim is also to contribute to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by reducing manufacturing emissions and waste. In the UK, an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothes end up in landfill every year (Wrap, 2021).

Elsewhere, the guidance states that schools should make sure their uniform policy is published on their website and is “clear and easy” for parents to understand.

In terms of implementation, the guidance does allow schools more time if they are tied into existing contracts with suppliers or if they need to enter into a retendering process.

Branded items

A clear message from the guidance is this: “Generic items which are widely available, including from low-cost outlets, will give parents choice and control over the cost of school uniforms.”

As such, schools must “keep branded items to a minimum and limit their use to low cost or long-lasting items”.

And the term “branded” means not just an item with a logo: “It is used to describe an item of clothing with distinctive characteristics which make it unique to the school or trust. As a general rule, if an item cannot be purchased at a range of retailers it is likely to be a branded item. Such items are often designed specifically for the school and are unique in colour, design, or fabric.”

This would include blazers with a school logo embroidered onto it, a sew on logo, a sweatshirt with a specific coloured trim, or trousers with a unique style and therefore only available from a specific supplier.

The guidance adds: “In comparison, a navy skirt or a grey cardigan that can be bought from a variety of retailers would not be considered a branded item.”

If a school decides that a branded item is required, then costs must be kept down, for example by using sew or iron-on labels or limiting the branded items to longer-lasting items such as ties rather than items that the parent may need to purchase more frequently or in larger quantities such as shirts. Optional branded items should also be kept to a minimum.

Avoid frequent changes

Schools should avoid frequent changes to uniform specifications and will need to show why any change in uniform specifications is needed and how it secures “the best value for money”.

The guidance adds: “Schools should take action to minimise any financial impact of any change on parents (such as allowing pupils to continue to wear the old uniform for a reasonable period).”

Second-hand options

The guidance states that all schools should clearly signpost where second-hand uniforms are available to buy. It also suggests other initiatives such as organising periodic second-hand uniform sales or “swap shops” and involving the PTA in this work. Some schools may be able to participate in local authority-run schemes, it adds.

The guidance states: “Schools should ensure that arrangements are in place so that second-hand school uniforms are available for parents to acquire. While schools can decide the particular method they are going to use to make the provision of second-hand uniforms available to parents, all schools should ensure that information on second-hand uniforms is clear for parents of current and prospective pupils and published on the school’s website. This should clearly state where second-hand uniforms are available to be purchased.”

Other requirements

Schools should avoid requiring parents to purchase additional uniform for the purpose of any extra-curricular activity.

Furthermore, schools should assess the impact which variations in their uniform (house colours or specific items of clothing for different year groups) can have on total costs and the ability of parents to pass items down between siblings.

And schools should assess the overall cost implications of their school uniform policy for parents and be aware of how costs could mount up where multiple items of the same garment may be needed as a child grows.

When developing their school’s PE kit, schools should “avoid being overly specific in their kit requirements for different sports and keep the number of items, particularly the number of branded items, to a minimum”.

Parents and suppliers

Schools should engage with parents and pupils on cost issues when they are developing their uniform policy. They should be able to show how these views have been considered in their policy.

Schools are also expected to push their suppliers on how to ensure that they get the best value for money on their proposed uniform. The guidance adds: “A supplier may be able to provide standard style items cheaper than more intricate and unique designs.”

It continues: “Schools should ensure that their uniform supplier arrangements give the highest priority to cost and value for money (including the quality and durability of the garment).

“Single supplier contracts should be avoided unless regular tendering competitions are run where more than one supplier can compete for the contract and where the best value for money is secured. This contract should be retendered at least every five years.”

The cost of school uniform research

The DfE-commissioned research (Davies, 2015) found that the vast majority of parents were required to buy several items of school uniform, including shirts, shoes, sweatshirts, and PE kit (all-year-round t-shirts and plimsolls/trainers).

A third were required to have blazers and 88 per cent of parents said that at least one item of uniform required a logo.

While 62 per cent of parents could buy items from a combination of designated shops, the school or elsewhere, only 17 per cent could buy all of their child’s school uniform and PE kit from any shop (and this was down from 22 per cent in 2007).

Choice and cost: This table from the DfE-commissioned school uniform research shows just how much families can save if uniform items can be bought at any shop (Davies, 2015)

The DfE research found that the average total cost of school uniform for the 2014/15 school year was £213. This was less expensive for those in primary school (£192 for boys and £201 for girls) than in secondary school (£231 for boys and £240 for girls). Indeed, throughout the research the uniform burden seems to fall more heavily on parents of secondary age children.

Importantly, the average total expenditure was less expensive when items could be purchased from any shop (£189).

However, the situation seems to have worsened since 2015. Research last year from 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.

Impact: Last year, research from The Children’s Society showed (from top) the notable increase in cost when families have to use designated shops; the average cost of secondary uniform items; the average cost of primary uniform items; the stark impact on children and families when school uniform is too expensive (Children’s Society, 2020)

In the DfE’s research (Davies, 2015), 18 per cent of parents reported that they had suffered financial hardship as a result of purchasing their child’s school uniform. However, this falls to nine per cent of parents whose school allowed them to purchase all items of uniform from any shop.

The Children’s Society research meanwhile warned that 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.

It 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.”

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