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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered school uniform costs.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, although it feels a little like we are in the graveyard shift at the end of a very long Parliament. As I said to the Minister just before the debate, it is a genuine pleasure to talk to him about education once more. I started this parliamentary Session talking about education, so to finish it this way feels complete. I want to focus on the cost of school uniforms, and I will make recommendations that I hope schools and the Minister will follow.
After nine years of cuts, benefit cuts and stagnating wages, an increasing number of parents are unable to meet the basic cost of living, and the knock-on effect of that reality is a rise in child poverty. Currently, 8.3 million working-age adults and 4.6 million children are living in poverty. The numbers continue to rise, and forecasts predict that they are set to exceed the record levels of the early 1990s, which should concern us all deeply.
Recent research has brought to light many of the negative effects that growing up in poverty has on children. Some are stark and brutal. In the most deprived areas of our country, girls can expect to live 20 fewer years of their lives in good health, compared with those in the least-deprived areas. For boys, it is 19 fewer years. Both genders are four times more likely to develop mental health problems by the age of 11.
The indignities and suffering brought about by poverty are often less obvious. Every September, we see children on their way to start the new school year looking very smart in their uniforms, and our thoughts might turn to our own, or perhaps our children’s, first day. I was a teacher, and I remember the pleasure of having my classroom windows overlook the children starting school and lining up with their brand-new book bags, which were nearly as big as them, as they stood outside, waiting to meet their new teacher.
I now see children in uniforms through a different set of eyes. I was deeply affected by the testimony of a group of mothers at an evidence session of the Select Committee on Education. They told us of the demands placed on them by the increasing cost of school uniforms. Uniform dress codes now rarely consist of a simple badged sweatshirt and dark trousers or a skirt; they now include shirts, ties, blazers, and PE kits, indoor and out, all branded and often available through only a single supplier. I was devasted by the parents’ description of skipping meals to try to meet the ever-increasing costs.
Tragically, those accounts do not represent rare and isolated circumstances. Research from the Children’s Society shows that nearly one in six families said that school uniforms were to blame for their having to cut back on food and other basic essentials. Its report, “The Wrong Blazer 2018: Time for action on school uniform costs”, revealed that families have to find an average of £340 per year for each child at secondary school—an increase of 7% since 2015. Parents of primary school children spent an average of £255—an increase of 2%.
Parentkind’s latest annual survey of parents confirms that upward pressure: 76% of parents reported that the cost of sending children to school is increasing, and more than half are worried about meeting that cost. The high cost of uniforms is in some cases maintained by school policies that insist that parents buy clothing from specialist shops, rather than giving them the choice of buying items at cheaper stores, such as supermarkets or high street chains. When parents had to buy two or more school uniform items from a specific supplier, spending was found to be an average of £71 per year higher for secondary school children and £77 higher per year for primary school children. Some schools demand that seemingly generic items, such as a pair of black trousers, a PE top or shorts, must carry the school badge or logo, which also locks parents into specific retailers.