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There are few issues more pressing for my constituents than the state of their public services after a near decade of austerity. This summer, I heard from too many parents struggling to access one of the most basic public services: education for their children. It is a free service, but it carries costs, such as the spiralling costs of school uniform and gym kit, which can leave parents facing a three-figure annual bill. Single suppliers can exploit a lack of alternatives and are driving up prices. For example, adding a logo to school trousers can raise the price by 75%.
It is now four years since the previous Chancellor promised to tackle such practices by issuing statutory guidance for schools on uniforms, yet there was no sign of such a Bill in Monday’s speech. The Government also referred to the school uniform grant, which is advertised on the Department’s website, but it is for local authorities to decide what they offer and to foot the bill at a time when they are barely funded enough to run their core services.
Ministers have admitted to me that they do not even collate data on where the grants are provided, so this summer I decided to do their job for them. I conducted a large-scale research project surveying every first-tier local authority in England to assess the availability of the grant. Some 99% have now responded and the results are, frankly, quite shocking.
Over 80% of first-tier local authorities now provide no school uniform grant at all. The scheme was legislated for by a Conservative Government in 1980 and is still advertised by this Government as if it is nationally available. In truth, it is now available to just a small minority. Just 27 of 149 councils now provide grants, and a third of those only do so in emergency situations such as a fire or flood. Only three councils now offer a grant to low-income children in all school years and in all situations.
Even among councils that still offer the grant, there have been drastic declines in the number issued and the amounts provided. Lincolnshire County Council, for example, issued only three grants last year, totalling just £153.68. The number of grants issued has fallen by 71% since 2010, and spending is down by 68%.
Time after time, I heard that the cuts were the cause. It is no surprise that two thirds of councils that recorded having ended the scheme did so after 2010. No council in the north-east now provides a grant. A grant is provided by just one council in the whole of the south and the east of England, and by only three in the midlands. The average grant offered in 2018 was less than a sixth of the average cost of a uniform. Just one council, Islington, offered the full £150 that is often promoted as the standard sum.
The school uniform grant is meant to be a lifeline for families across the country who are struggling to meet the rising cost of sending their children to school, but the cuts have left the vast majority without that support. Quite simply, it has been abolished by stealth.
The Children’s Society recently found that nearly 2 million children now attend school in badly fitting, unclean or incorrect clothing, and that one in 10 families report getting into debt to buy school clothes. It is just not good enough to fob us off, as Ministers have done, with the suggestion that schools should stockpile second-hand clothes for pupils.
Families are being squeezed between rising costs and the lack of support to help them, and both lie directly at this Government’s door. They will not step in to tackle private sector providers that exploit parents. They have dragged their feet for four years, and this week we have seen the announcement of yet another legislative programme with no sign of the suitable opportunity for which they say they are waiting.
As I have shown today, it is on the Government’s watch that struggling parents have lost the lifeline that once existed to help them. Parents have waited long enough. This Government must bring forward a Bill, and it must become an Act by next summer because it is acts, not words, that count.