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Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:50 am on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage 10:50 am, 13th March 2020

I congratulate Mike Amesbury on promoting the Bill. I am pleased that the Government are supporting it, and I am happy to do so as well. I was a governor of schools for 10 years before coming into politics, and uniform issues weaved in and out of my time as a governor. Let me start by saying that I am a strong supporter of uniform and the role it can play in building identity and discipline, as well as the role it should play as a leveller for children of all different backgrounds. The Bill is necessary because uniform is not acting as the leveller it should be at the moment, and I want to touch on three aspects.

The first is the financial burden. As we have heard, the £340 figure is widely disputed, and that is the limitation of a survey of a small proportion of parents. On the other hand, some of the very low figures that have been sent my way do not seem to take account of the fact that children often need multiples of the same item. They also do not take account of the growth spurts or the obstructive activities that children can get up to at breaktime and lunchtime, which may mean that further items are needed during the course of the year.

Most studies, including the ones from the Department for Education, seem to indicate that there are parents for whom uniforms are a real financial burden, and who sometimes get into debt and have to give up essentials. Before I came to the Chamber, I received some information from the Competition and Markets Authority—I am sure other Members did as well—which said that this is one of the areas it receives most complaints about, which is an interesting point to note.

It is true that schools and local authorities offer support to families with the cost of uniform, and when I was a governor, we did the same, but as with any support offered to people experiencing poverty, the stigma of applying for it can mean that they do not do so, even when they are eligible. I remember, as a governor, that all the schools I was working with bent over backwards to get children who were eligible for free school meals to claim them, but whatever they did, families were uncomfortable doing so. We therefore need this statutory guidance, to ensure that everybody is getting the support they need.

The second aspect is attendance, which is fundamental to attainment. When I was a charity chief executive, I became familiar with other charities such as School-Home Support, which works on the relationship between schools and families, particularly trying to combat issues of truancy. At the heart of truancy were often issues of uniform—items of uniform that had been lost or that children had grown out of, and sometimes items of uniform that children were embarrassed to wear because they were dirty. Sometimes School-Home Support meant putting that uniform in a washing machine, which the family lacked, and fixing that issue fixed the attendance problem.

At the charity I ran before coming here, we placed young people—mostly those who were eligible for free school meals—in employers, and we often had to buy them the items they needed to feel comfortable in the workplace. Many of those young people now have successful careers in those companies, but if we had not bought them the original item they needed to feel comfortable going on their work placement, they would never have taken up that opportunity.

The third aspect is the way the schoolwear market operates. I believe in competition. I think that higher prices are not usually the result of too much competition, but rather too little competition. I have heard from schoolwear suppliers in my constituency about the issues they face in supplying schools with uniform. They feel that they can sometimes cut the cost to parents by 25%, while maintaining the same quality. Quality is important—it should not be like my occasional eBay purchases where I think I have got a bargain, and two weeks later I have to buy the same item from a more reputable source. Those suppliers feel that they can match the quality, and yet they are kept out because of exclusivity arrangements that schools have reached without going through a proper tendering process.

I have been pleasingly surprised by how many within the schoolwear industry welcome the Bill. They would like to see it enable a level playing field for them to compete on quality and price, so that their business can succeed in the way that I think we would all like them to succeed. I hope that, with these guidelines, we can enable businesses to operate on a level playing field, while protecting families who, for too long, have had to pay too much for uniform.