Affording school uniforms can be very difficult for any parents on low incomes – if you are in debt it can be a nightmare. A Citizens Advice survey found that a quarter of all parents have to borrow money to afford uniforms.
This isn’t just a financial problem. Children who aren’t wearing “the right uniform” are at risk of being stigmatised or bullied.
Government is making the right noises but not acting
In 2013, David Laws, the Education Minister, issued guidance that schools should end the practice of only having one approved uniform supplier.
In February 2015, the Children’s Society published The Wrong Blazer: Time For Action On School Uniform Costs:
on average parents overspend on school uniforms by £170 per child each year. Parents say that this leads to children going to school in ill-fitting school uniforms, being sent home from school or to families cutting back on food or other basic essentials.
The Competition and Markets Authority (another government regulator) wrote a letter in 2015 to head teachers, governing boards and uniform suppliers which asks them to consider:
whether the arrangements you have in place are likely to lead to competitive prices and good quality.
This letter also points out:
Where schools appoint uniform suppliers or retailers, they, and their uniform suppliers or retailers need to be aware that their arrangements or conduct may be scrutinised under competition law… These types of arrangement or conduct may break competition law and could be investigated formally by the CMA.
In 2018, MSPs have called for Scottish schools to cut excessive uniform costs.
But none of this seems to be making much difference for too many schools.
Schools converting to Academy-status often want to emphasise their pride, which is fair enough. But this can come in the form of badges which can be sewn on and transferred to the next size up when your child outgrows the top.It's time the government stopped issuing guidance about the cost of school uniform and started making some laws to control it!Click To Tweet
What to do if your child’s school has expensive uniform
Complain – and ask other parents to as well
Complain! Write to the Head and the Chair of Governors explaining what hardship this is causing you and many other parents.
It’s a good idea to say how proud you are of child going to their school and how you think uniform is important but point out the high cost that you can ill afford. Quote the Open Letter from the CMA (link above).
Church schools may be particularly sensitive if you say how unfair and unethical their current policy is. You could quote from the government guidance:
A school should ensure that its school uniform policy is fair and reasonable. It should ensure that the uniform chosen is affordable and does not act as a barrier to parents when choosing a school.
Offer copies of your letter to other parents so it’s easy for them to join you in trying to get things changed. If your school has a Twitter account or a Facebook page, complaining on those can be very effective ways of getting listened to because they can be read by prospective parents.
If you can’t get the school to change its policy, then ask for it to run second-hand uniform sales. These can be especially good for gym kit which is often outgrown before it is worn out.
Can you get help with school costs?
Some local authorities will help with uniform costs
If you get some benefits you may be able to get help from your local council. with uniform costs, but not all offer this. If you do qualify, you can get up to £150 to help with uniform expenses, including PE kits.
And in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, you may be able to get a grant. Put your post-code in here to find out if you can get help.
Free school meals
If you get some means-tested benefits – Universal Credit, Job Seekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support or full Child Tax Credits – your children may be entitled to free school meals. In some places you apply to the Local Authority, in others directly to the school.
Put your postcode in here to find out and check out the rules in your area.
Transport to school costs
If you are on a low income (your children are entitled to free school meals or you get the maximum amount of working tax credit) you may be entitled to help with transport costs. This may be free bus passes or the local authority may run school buses.
This is a complicated area, see this Citizens Advice page.
Schools are only allowed to ask for voluntary contributions from parents for trips which are being held during school time. Sometimes the letters your child brings home don’t make this clear! See the government’s explanation and contact the school if you cannot afford the trip you are being asked to pay for.
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