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School Uniform Costs — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:11 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 3:11 pm, 5th November 2019

The hon. Lady raises a good point. It is something that we will reflect on. I have often seen schools and academies, in such circumstances, provide the uniform for existing pupils, because of course it is a cost that parents will not have expected. There are many ways around the issue, but it needs to be addressed and taken seriously, as the hon. Lady says.

While school uniform can have a hugely positive impact on a school, by providing cohesion and community for the pupil population, it may present a financial burden to some—particularly to families on low incomes —as has been widely discussed in this important debate. In 2015, the Department commissioned the “Cost of school uniform” survey, which provided the most recent information that we hold on the cost of school uniform and indicated that the average cost of most items decreased between 2007 and 2015—the date of the report—when adjusted for inflation. Moreover, most parents were pleased with the overall cost and quality of their child’s uniform. More than two thirds of parents were happy with the cost of uniform and PE kit. However, in the same survey nearly one fifth of parents reported that they had suffered financial hardship as a result of purchasing their child’s school uniform. It is therefore vital that we do what we can to ensure that school uniform is accessible for all, no matter what the family’s budget.

It is for the governing body of a school, or the academy trust, in the case of academies, to decide whether there should be a school uniform policy, and if so, what it should be. It is also for the governing body to decide how the uniform should be sourced. However, we are clear that governing bodies should give cost considerations the highest priority when making decisions about school uniform. The Department published best practice guidance for school leaders on developing and implementing school uniform policy. That guidance sets out that a school should ensure that its school uniform policy is fair and reasonable for all its students. It should make certain that the uniform is affordable and does not act as a barrier to parents when choosing a school.

School uniform should be easily available for parents to purchase. In particular, the guidance specifically states that schools should seek to select items that can be purchased cheaply—for example, in a supermarket. If parents can shop around for items of uniform, that can encourage competition and enable them to buy their uniform from a retailer at a price that suits their household budget. The Department’s guidance advises schools that, in setting their school uniform policy, they should give the highest priority to cost considerations and achieving value for money for parents.

I am aware that a concern is often mentioned in this context about branded items of uniform, and how those are supplied—something that has been mentioned in the debate. We recognise that schools will often want to adopt items of uniform that are specific to that school, such as a branded blazer or tie. The Department, however, advises schools to keep such branded items of uniform to a minimum, as multiple branded items can significantly increase costs. We recommend that schools should avoid exclusive single-supplier contracts, as those could risk driving up costs. Where schools choose to enter into such contracts, which in some cases may be the best option, they should ensure that they are subject to a regular competitive tendering process to ensure the best value for money.

The hon. Member for Barnsley East raised the issue of schools that receive a financial incentive to use a specified supplier. The guidance explicitly states:

“Schools should not enter into cash back arrangements.”

It is very clear about that. If parents have concerns about the school uniform supply arrangements in relation to competition law, they can raise them with the Competition and Markets Authority. As you may be aware, Mr Pritchard, the CMA wrote an open letter to schools and school uniform suppliers, which provides more detail about its policy, and what powers it has, regarding the appointment of exclusive suppliers for school uniform.

With reference to the request of my hon. Friend John Howell, he will be pleased to know that the Government have committed to putting our best practice guidance on school uniform on to a statutory footing. Opposition Members also made that request. The Secretary of State and the CMA recently engaged in an exchange of open letters on the matter of single-supplier contracts.