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School Uniform Costs — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Emma Hardy Emma Hardy Labour, Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle 2:30 pm, 5th November 2019

I agree in part, but I want to put a bit of pressure on the Minister to try to force schools to ensure that uniforms are as cheap as possible, because there are alternatives out there.

This is not just about the increasing cost of uniforms; the fashionable zero-tolerance approach to behaviour is also having an impact on the education of children from hard-up families. More than one in 20 parents reported that their child had been sent home for wearing non-approved clothes or shoes, or even the wrong socks, as a result of struggling to afford the costs. That is something that came up in the evidence. Children are being sent home or are being put into isolation for the day because their uniform is not absolutely accurate. Based on Department for Education statistics on the number of children in primary and secondary schools across England, that translates to about half a million children having suffered the indignity and humiliation of being sent home from school or put in isolation—punished for no reason other than the misfortune of having been born part of a family that is living in poverty.

The pernicious nature of poverty sours even what we might remember as the fun parts of school. It is known that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to miss out on school extras, such as trips or music lessons, but evidence has emerged recently showing that the growing trend of schools increasing the number of dress-up days, often as a means of shoring up their depleted funds, is resulting in an increase in the number of unauthorised absences among those pupils.

An analysis of attendance data by the Association of School and College Leaders shows a significant increase in the number of unauthorised absences among pupils on 14 December. The date puzzled the researchers until they realised that the date was traditionally Christmas jumper day. Unauthorised absences among pupils regarded as disadvantaged in the schools studied were nearly three times higher than on a typical day. For those regarded as without disadvantage, it was still nearly twice as high. At the risk of sounding like the Grinch before Christmas, I encourage schools to change Christmas jumper day to something more straightforward, such as Christmas hat day. The school could provide all the materials for the children, who could still dress up and enjoy Christmas, but it would not put off children from poorer backgrounds from attending school that day and learning, just because they cannot afford the cost of a Christmas jumper.

The fact that the embarrassment of standing out drives pupils to skip school casts a different light on the Children’s Society’s findings: about one in 10 said that the unaffordability of uniforms had led to the child wearing unclean or ill-fitting uniforms to school. I received feedback from some teenage girls about that, and they talked about the humiliation they felt at having to go to school in ill-fitting uniforms. One parent told me that her daughter was sent home because her skirt was too tight and was seen as not correctly following the school uniform code. However, the girl had grown considerably after a sudden growth spurt, and the parent was unable to afford a new uniform, especially as the need for logos makes it more expensive.

Our children are growing up in an increasingly image-conscious world where bullying has become easier through social media. As I have said, children in poverty are four times more likely to have a mental health problem by the age of 11. It seems unlikely that there is no connection between children being forced to go to school in ill-fitting or unclean uniform and their feeling an impact on their mental health.

My response to hearing the harrowing testimony from mothers at the Education Committee hearing was to organise a uniform exchange in my constituency, called RE:Uniform, which began at the beginning of summer term and ran through the summer holidays. Thanks to a network of volunteers—in particular, I thank Reverend David Speirs and Susie Steel from the Methodist Church, the Hessle Road Network and many others—items of school uniform that were no longer needed but still perfectly wearable were collected at pick-up-and drop-off points. They were washed, ironed, sorted and made available, for free, to anyone who needed them. It was a huge success—we helped more than 500 families and we intend to repeat it. That kind of scheme should be part of everyday life. Although some schools do similar schemes, one of the great things about the RE:Uniform project was that it mixed up uniform from across the city. Some areas may have a more expensive generic uniforms, and it might end up being distributed to another area of the city. That was its strength and the reason it worked so well.