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Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:53 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury 9:53 am, 13th March 2020

I congratulate Mike Amesbury on introducing this Bill. Like many hon. Members, I have received a considerable number of emails from constituents concerned about the unacceptably high cost of uniforms. It is perhaps unfortunate that many of these were part of a concerted mass email campaign that was somewhat sensationalist and inaccurate in nature, and did not in fact consider the specific situation in my constituency, let alone at individual schools in the Aylesbury area. That said, let me be very clear that I entirely support the proposal in the Bill that the Secretary of State should issue statutory guidance on the costs aspects of school uniforms.

It is vital that children should be able to attend school to focus on improving their life chances and not to experience any form of bullying, harassment or stress because of the clothes that they wear. In fact, the principle of a school uniform can be a great leveller.

It enables children to form a joint identity, a common bond, in much the way that fans of a football team enjoy wearing replica kits to matches. Many children enjoy wearing their uniform, too. Only yesterday, I spent time with pupils from two primary schools in my constituency—William Harding School and St Edward’s Junior School—visiting the Houses of Parliament. They told me that wearing uniform stops children being judged, and that it is easier to afford than many other clothes. They liked the way that a uniform helped to form a common bond and, ever wise as young children are, they pointed out to me that it would help to identify them if they got lost during their tour of the House, which did make me wonder whether we new MPs might have benefited from a uniform in our first few weeks here.

The advantages and benefits of school uniforms do not, however, mean that head teachers or governing bodies should be able to use them as a covert means to restrict admission. To insist on one particular supplier with unnecessarily high costs is simply not acceptable. Schools must be able to justify their uniform policies. The fact that this Bill puts guidance of cost of uniforms on a statutory basis is for the good. It is entirely in line with the Government’s commitments, and I commend the hon. Member for introducing it.

The main point that I want to make today is that many suppliers of school uniforms are responsible businesses. Indeed, a competitively priced school uniform can be considerably cheaper than buying ordinary clothes, especially those from famous fashion or sports brands. I speak from personal experience, which is similar to that of the hon. Member. My own school in the ‘80s did not have a formal uniform, and the result was often close to a catwalk competition—a competition that I never won.

In my own constituency, the company Print Lab supplies 22 schools. Its secondary school branded uniform consists of blazer, jumper, tie, PE top, outdoor PE top, shorts and socks, for which the total cost is £107.50, and typically lasts for between one and two years. The primary branded uniform of four sweatshirts or cardigans, four polo shirts, the PE equipment and the bags costs £105.50. That works out at about 55p per day, so it is possible to do it at a competitive price.

That company is an example of the entrepreneurial spirit that we need to foster in our country. It was founded by Ian Goodchild in his mum’s garage on Bedgrove in Aylesbury in 2012 and has grown over the past seven years so that it now employs up to 11 people at peak times. That company helps out the schools that it supplies to, sometimes by providing kit for sports teams and sometimes by providing free uniform for the least well-off. What is more, it is a firm that welcomes competition. Indeed, it outsells both Marks & Spencer and John Lewis at the schools where they are also approved suppliers.

In short, it is a British small business that is providing a competitively priced product, employing local people and helping the community.

There are many other such firms around the country, so let us use this Bill to recognise their contribution to the economy and to our schools. Let these firms set the example of how uniforms can bring real benefits to schools, but let this Bill also serve to stop schools insisting on a particular supplier and uniforms at inflated prices that provide a barrier to any pupil, and to demonstrate to the unscrupulous, the greedy and the irresponsible that there is no place for them in our education system.