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I agree with my hon. Friend that the Government can do more. In fact, the Welsh Government are insisting on a limit on school uniform costs and on gender-neutral uniform. They are giving parents the power to hold schools to account if they are not acting in the parents’ interest, but unfortunately we do not have that option for schools in England. The scheme that we ran was very successful, but it could have been even more so had all schools been encouraged to take off the badges and have generic uniform, because if uniforms did not have badges, they could be shared more easily across the city.
Putting costs and poverty aside for a moment, we need to think about a sustainable future and consider the pressures on the environment and the challenges of climate change. Last Saturday I attended a fantastic event in Hull: an eco and affordable fashion show, where people had made incredibly inventive clothes out of discarded materials. I sat next to an amazing woman who called herself “the mean queen” and said she could live on hardly anything. She had knitted a bag out of the tape from a video cassette—it was absolutely amazing. I am not saying we all need to that, but perhaps we need to think about sustainable fashion and reusing things.
There is no evidence that a school uniform, let alone a highly prescriptive and zealously enforced school uniform, improves educational outcomes for any children, disadvantaged or otherwise. A perception seems to have grown over time that, somehow, the stricter the uniform, the better behaved the child, but I have seen no evidence of any correlation. Having a uniform that all parents and children can access is more likely to build positive relationships with parents and the community, and, therefore, instil a better attitude to learning at school.
The Department for Education states that it
“strongly encourages schools to have a uniform”,
and believes that
“uniform can play a valuable role in contributing to the ethos of a school and setting an appropriate tone”.
The Department insists that schools should have a uniform, but I put it to the Minister that perhaps it needs to do more to ensure that it is affordable for everyone. Currently, the Department expects schools only to “take account” of its published guidance on school uniforms. The guidance states that a school’s uniform policy should be clearly set out and subject to reasonable requests for variation, and that any changes should take into account the views of parents and pupils, but there is no mention of affordability. Specifically, it says:
“No school uniform should be so expensive as to leave pupils or their families feeling unable to apply to, or attend, a school of their choice, due to the cost of the uniform. School governing bodies should therefore give high priority to cost considerations. The governing body should be able to demonstrate how best value has been achieved and keep the cost of supplying the uniform under review.”
The evidence I have presented shows that the guidance is routinely ignored. Parents up and down the country are starving themselves to pay for school uniform. In September, Lord Agnew agreed with me that the approach of some schools to uniform was “ridiculous” and “mindless bureaucracy” on their part. He said,
“They don’t realise that actually this is an additional burden for a family that’s not well off”,
and that he was
“happy to amend the guidance.”
That was very welcome, but in the light of the fact that schools clearly disregard the guidance, the Minister should make it statutory. In response to a written question in July, the Minister said that the Department intended to put the school uniform guidance on a statutory footing,
“when a suitable legislative opportunity arose.”
I would like to think that neither my nor any other party would oppose that proposal, and that we can all unite in agreement. It could, therefore, be progressed extremely quickly, although I realise that time is getting a little tight. Instead, however, it has been put on the back shelf.
We need to poverty-proof the school day, beginning with a school uniform price cap. The Children’s Society proposes taking a similar approach to that of the Financial Conduct Authority in its capping of rent-to-own products. It proposes the benchmarking of prices and an average as the cap. That would involve a school’s regulatory body surveying the market to ascertain the cost of school uniform items and setting the cap based on that. Then, under statutory guidance, schools would be responsible not only for ensuring that they are making affordability a primary concern, but for demonstrating that their uniform policy is in keeping with the cap. In short, under the cap, would a family be able to afford the items of uniform set out in the school’s policy?
Introducing such a measure would not be without challenge. It would require some extra administrative work for schools, to ensure that their uniform cost is within the cap. Crucially, it would require an honest and accurate assessment of the incomes of poor families and the other claims on their spending, to decide what is realistically affordable for them. Recently, many decision makers have struggled to accept the true scale and nature of poverty in this country.
The measure should alleviate the unnecessary costs facing all parents. However, for millions the root cause of the problem will remain—ever-increasing poverty in our country. In response, the Labour party is prepared to reinvest in this country, to make work pay and to properly support those who are out of work or disabled. It will create a unified national education service for England, to provide cradle-to-grave learning that is free at the point of use. Fully funded, it will begin the huge task of turning around the effects of years of cuts and neglect, and will incorporate all forms of education, from early years through to adult education. That will be built on the principles that underpin the Labour movement: a society should be judged on how it treats the weakest and most vulnerable, and should believe that every child—and adult—matters.