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Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:09 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Andrew Lewer Andrew Lewer Conservative, Northampton South 10:09 am, 13th March 2020

It is interesting, and in some ways welcome, to have a proposal before the House that attracts cross-party support, but also obliges us to consider it and debate it carefully. The hon. Members for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) have talked in the House about schoolwear costs—the latter quite extensively—as have numerous Conservative Members, and Ministers. Some of my comments, however, will be on other aspects of schoolwear, and approaches other than those that hon. Members suggested in other debates. I want to be unambiguously clear, though, that value is important, and that there are parents and carers for whom the cost of schoolwear is a very serious issue, even when we allow for the costs of a school not having a uniform, and cost pressures of every other kind. I take that issue as seriously for my constituents as I am sure Members in every part of the House do for theirs.

I am grateful to Seema Malhotra for her comments. She made very sensible points about the special nature of the sector, and about stock, unintended consequences and quality, which I shall expand on a little. I suppose that one of the benefits of these sorts of debates is the measure of agreement; it allows us to achieve consensus, but also to draw out points that need to be made.

I have brief comments on the nature of the proposal, but will focus more on the pragmatic and practical. Views on school uniform—how traditional or otherwise it should be, and its role in promoting standards in education—vary. On the issue of cost, the schoolwear sector—retail and wholesale—deserves a fair hearing. Marge Simpson once said that she could not afford to shop at a store that had a philosophy. I wonder whether, for some, that feeling extends to schoolwear suppliers. In so far as the sector has a philosophy, I have found it very positive. Much of it relates to value. The Schoolwear Shop in my constituency of Northampton South certainly tries hard to keep costs down, but there are examples that illustrate why guidance must allow for differentiation between absolute cost and value for money. The team at David Luke Ltd of Manchester, for instance, led by Kathryn Shuttleworth and Mark Woolgar, have developed schoolwear that is not only low cost but made from recycled materials. That is a move away from fast fashion and waste, but also enhances the hard-wearing nature of the clothes they sell.

The approach of seeking decent quality, and thus longer-lasting, clothing, as well as interesting and innovative ways of supporting parents on lower incomes, is also taken by Jan Richardson and her team at Total Clothing in Peterborough. I have seen that approach taken by Georgina Bradley at Sussex Uniforms as well. Someone who has to buy three pairs of trousers for £10 each, instead of one pair for £25 that lasts three times as long, is not saving any money.

My encounters with business people in this sector, and messages and information from others, show me that the sector cares about the schools and the parents whom they serve, and understands the price pressures on many of them. The fact that it seeks to resolve those issues through durability and ethical sourcing shows that there is more to value than the sticker price, and that is something to which schools, parents and the Department for Education should have regard. Tendering for sole supply arrangements can keep prices on the cost and value matrix down, and I welcome the place for that idea in the guidance, and believe that it addresses many of hon. Members’ concerns. I very much hope that when the guidance goes back out to consultation, the schoolwear sector, and especially its best exemplars, get a full opportunity to contribute and explain the special business model that the sector requires, which we have heard a little about. I hope we also hear from charities and campaign groups of various kinds.

The need for a balanced assessment is underlined by the hugely detailed, and—I would assert, reverting back to my time in academia—peer reviewable work that the Schoolwear Association has done on the true cost of uniform, which acts as a corrective to work done by others. We have heard that the average basket price for branded garments—uniform and sportswear—for a child starting secondary school is £101.19, and that the cost is £35 to £40 a year thereafter.

We have all been children, and many of us have school-age children; I do. Opinions in the House and the real world will diverge based on personal, family and constituents’ experiences. There are families where someone did not go to a good school that they would have thrived in, because it was thought that they could not afford the uniform. Alternatively, there are families who found having a school with a proper uniform a great social leveller; it gave them freedom from the peer pressure of, “Your jacket’s from the supermarket, but mine’s Gucci.” That relates to the PE point. If requirements are too generic, all those expensive brand labels that the Bill’s promoter, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, spoke about will return to schools. That makes the case for having lower-cost items that are branded by the school, rather than by Nike, Adidas or someone else at unbelievable cost, which would put pressure on those on low incomes to keep up with the Joneses.