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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me for calling me to speak in this debate on a subject that affects families across my constituency of Putney and across the country. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury on taking up this Bill. Like many others in this debate, I am speaking in favour of uniforms, but against the excessive cost of uniforms, which in my experience is increasing. I am in favour of the statutory guidance to enforce the Department for Education’s existing guidelines, which make cost and affordability the priority in choosing and setting a uniform list.
I have four children, and it is an extremely proud moment when I dress them up in their uniform—they are very proud to be wearing it—and take them off to their new school. However, there was a heartbreaking moment for me when I attended an open day with my son, when we were going around local comprehensive schools, and I sat down to hear the headmaster’s speech. In front of me, another mum sat down and picked up the information about the school. I saw her picking up the uniform list, looking down it and turning to her son and saying, “We can’t go here”, and they left. That school was never available to them. With that school’s current uniform policy, if someone buys one item of clothing of each of the items, it is £468.50. That is a huge bill to face in September, if their child is going to school for the first time. The uniform policy is a hidden cost for parents at this school, but that parent will never have a chance to have a say on that school’s uniform policy because she will never be going there. That is why this legislation is so important.
Sarah Chapman, who works at the Wandsworth food bank, told me:
“The impact of school uniform costs for families on low incomes can’t be underestimated” in her experience of talking to families.
“It’s a constant theme in conversations with families at the food bank, especially before the new school year starts, and especially if children are moving to secondary school.”
She says that branded uniforms—it is not just blazers and PE kits; at some schools, it is also skirts and trousers—can push low-income families into struggling to pay the rent and to buy essentials such as food. She says:
“Many parents tell us that it was so much better when the uniform needed was generic grey/black skirts/trousers…which they could buy at much lower cost”,
but still at good quality, from supermarkets.
The food bank has recently been supporting the mum of one daughter of secondary school age, who fled domestic violence and was unable to work or claim benefits while the Home Office processed her asylum application. When Sarah met her, the pressure of previous trauma and present inability to provide basic essentials for her daughter meant she had recently attempted to take her own life. She said that one of the big things for her was that her daughter, at secondary school, was having to wear hand-me-downs she had long grown out of, and as a result was being laughed at by other students. Local church members clubbed together to get her money for her uniform, and she now feels more comfortable being at school in clothes that fit, unsurprisingly. That has lifted a lot of pressure off, but has not fixed the root problem that prescriptive, branded uniforms place unnecessary financial pressures on low-income families. That family will face the same problem again as the daughter grows.
A Children’s Society survey has found that 13% of parents are getting into debt to cover school uniform costs, so that story is not alone. Nearly one in six families said that school uniform costs were to blame for them having to cut back on food and essential items. Uniform to start secondary school can be several hundred pounds, but the costs do not need to be so excessive, and the Bill will result in policy reviews that put affordability first. As many hon. Members have said in this debate, the problem is not with having a uniform, but that schools are increasingly using compulsory branded clothes from exclusive suppliers as part of the uniform. It does not need to be that way.
The Children’s Society research also shows that having an exclusive supplier increases the average cost of a uniform by £71 for secondary schools and £77 for primary schools. My children have been to several different schools during their careers, and there is no school they have been to that does not have an exclusive supplier. The Bill will stop comprehensive schools using uniform as a form of selection by the back door. Legislating for guidance by the Secretary of State to all schools will require them to follow current best practice, which says that when considering how school uniform should be sourced, governing bodies should give highest priority to the consideration of cost and value for money for parents. That will put parents and governors back in the driving seat when it comes to reviewing those policies. Items should be available from good-quality and affordable stores, and exclusive single supplier contracts should be avoided. Too often, schools do not follow that, and governors and parents do not have a basis to challenge those decisions: I think that is the difference that this legislation will make.
I am very pleased to support the Bill. Too many families are paying over the odds for uniform, are going into debt, or are being forced to choose between breaking the rules and breaking the bank. Let us make sure that no child is unable to apply for any school just because of unnecessarily excessive uniform costs.