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Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:46 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Paula Barker Paula Barker Labour, Liverpool, Wavertree 10:46 am, 13th March 2020

I have been inundated with requests from constituents asking me to support this important Bill, so I am delighted to be in the Chamber today, and indeed to be a sponsor of the Bill, which has been introduced by my good friend Mike Amesbury. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will come together to make a real difference on a matter that affects so many parents and students.

Despite my infancy in this place, I already feel that, with all the rhetorical back-and-forth, the bluster, the hyperbole and so forth, we can sometimes lose track of the real issues that affect the day-to-day lives of our constituents. In our communities across the land, whether they voted blue or red, too many working and non-working parents, and even grandparents, are worried about the cost of school uniforms. I acknowledge that we have heard different views today on the costs of school uniforms, but the Children’s Society, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale pointed out, has put the cost at more than £300 a year, meaning that an estimated 1 million parents have to cut back on food and other essentials to cover the cost.

Although I very much hope that the Bill will proceed today, we must remind ourselves that we are not in the business of gesture politics and warm words, so any new guidance offered to schools must tangibly and materially improve the situation for parents and pupils. I am sure that hon. Members will make similar points—indeed, others already have—but it is important that we get this right while we have the opportunity to do so. Any new guidance must look seriously at monopolisation within the sector. Monopolisation by suppliers is increasing costs, to the extent that it is harming the pockets of parents, and in its very nature it is exclusionary. Schools should comply with the guidance, and the guidance should address the exclusivity arrangements in the sector. I am certain that the best way to ensure that this takes place is to put in place mechanisms to see that the guidance is enforced. Schools should have to demonstrate clearly that a tendering process has been undertaken if using a single supplier, for example, which I am sure can be achieved in ways that need not be very bureaucratic.

When consulting with stakeholders and before introducing new guidance, the Government and the Department for Education must put parents at the heart of the consultation process. Schools must be required to reach out to parents who may not naturally be forthcoming about their concerns at the cost of their child’s school uniform. Assumptions and assertions by school leaders will only take us so far. As with tendering, we should be asking schools to demonstrate clearly that they have attempted to engage with parents, so that we, as political representatives, can continue to get a clear picture of the reality of forking out for uniforms. If done right, that will contribute significantly to guidance that is comprehensive and will universally improve the lot of our children.

To sum up, I believe—as pretty much all in the House do—in the principle of school uniforms. The benefits are many and have been reiterated in this place today. We have a great equaliser in the school uniform. However, we should not be creating inequalities elsewhere. As I said at the start of my speech, let us get on with it, but let us do it right and make a real difference.