Poverty-proof your school uniform

Written by: Dustin Hutchinson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As the pandemic hits many families’ finances hard, and the extra costs of winter take their toll, let’s not add excessive school uniform costs into the mix, says Dustin Hutchinson

Even prior to lockdown, nearly one in eight families cut back on food and other essentials to meet the cost of school uniforms. This was just one of the findings from research published by the Children’s Society before the pandemic struck (2020).

This is hardly surprising given that more than four million children in the UK are living in the grip of poverty, holding them back in many aspects of their education and their life outside school (SecEd, 2020a).

The pandemic is likely to have made child poverty worse, when so many have seen their incomes decrease or have lost work entirely. Coupled with this, costly fuel bills during the winter and extra Christmas spending make this time of year especially difficult, and send many family budgets spinning out of control.

While a school uniform policy alone cannot lift children out of poverty, an ill-fitting approach can tighten poverty’s grip and make it harder for families to cope.

That is why, last year, the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) and other leading charities supported a campaign led by the Children’s Society to make it a legal requirement for schools to make affordability the top priority when setting their uniform policy.

The Children’s Society research found that parents spend around £340 per year on school uniforms for each secondary school child. More than one in 10 parents fell into debt to pay for school uniforms.

This precariousness in family budgets emphasises the need for other types of support for low-income families and we should applaud the government for listening to the campaigns of Marcus Rashford and others to extend free school meals over the holidays (SecEd, 2020b).

But what is the government doing on school uniform costs?

There is already non-statutory guidance in place stating that schools should give highest priority to the consideration of cost and value for money when setting their school uniform policy, including steps such as keeping compulsory branded items to a minimum and avoiding specifying expensive items of uniform such as outdoor coats.

The research shows that where parents have to buy two or more items of school uniform from a specific supplier, costs were an average of £75 per year higher for secondary school children.

The Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill, which is currently making its way through the House of Commons, seeks to ensure parents can purchase products from a wide range of suppliers and then attach the branding separately.

This is primarily an issue about poverty – where schools have a moral responsibility to ensure their policies do not deepen the impact of poverty on the lives of pupils and their families. And poverty is such an important issue, especially since the pandemic struck, because it has a knock-on effect on so many aspects of children’s lives – including their educational outcomes and experience of school life.

The Children’s Society research estimates that 1.8 million children across England have been to school wearing incorrect, unclean or ill-fitting uniform as a result of school uniform costs. Directly or indirectly, this led to children missing out on their education and undermined their experience at school.

Six per cent of children were sent home from school for wearing incorrect uniform as a result of being unable to afford the uniform required by the school. At the same time, those wearing ill-fitting (12 per cent) or unclean (seven per cent) uniform as a result of school uniform costs faced unnecessary anxiety. In some cases this resulted in children missing school altogether, whether because they or their parents felt ashamed of the condition of the uniform they could afford.

On each of these measures, the impact of school uniform costs on children has worsened since 2015. This illustrates perfectly the insidious and growing effect of poverty spilling into different areas of our children’s lives.

Members of Young NCB shared the views expressed by Mike Amesbury MP, who drafted the Bill, that uniforms do tend to level the playing field, as long as each school’s own approach to branding or enforcement does not open up the gap again.

Vaneeza, 17, described an openness where children and young people “do not care less what uniform their peers are wearing”. She said: “Although materialism is growing, I personally feel that young people are more empathetic and understanding than ever. They put more value on the personality of their peers than their uniform – the discrepancies only bother the teachers.”

It is vital that schools ensure these pupils are not forced to buy an unnecessarily costly uniform, while also ensuring that it is not the pressure applied by teachers that keeps children away from school when they cannot afford the correct uniform.

Even on a level playing field, there are all kinds of pressures that children and young people will experience as they negotiate the boundaries of the school policy in the context of their relationships with their peers.

Young NCB member Bethan, 17, pointed to her experience that it’s not so much what pupils wear as how they wear it that matters: “There’s extreme pressure to make your uniform look ‘trendy’, or flatter you, even though uniform is there to make you all look the same. It definitely doesn’t achieve that aim, as it’s obvious whether you’ve worn it the ‘cool’ way.”

The least a school can do is to ensure that the playing field is as level as it can be, creating and applying a school uniform policy with compassion so it does not heap additional anxiety onto an experience which can already be challenging.

Above all, it is vital that school uniform policies do not send families deeper into poverty. For many families, the pandemic has multiplied their money worries and piled on challenges to their mental health.

We should avoid adding to these challenges by ensuring that legislation and school policies place cost and value considerations at their heart.

  • Dustin Hutchinson is senior research and policy analyst at the National Children’s Bureau.

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