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Cost of School Uniforms

Volume 647: debated on Tuesday 9 October 2018

[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the cost of school uniforms.

Ms McDonagh, this is the first time I have spoken under your chairmanship, so not only is today’s debate really important, but it gives me real pleasure to serve under you. I am sure that view is going to be shared by everybody, including the Minister, for whom I have some really good news. I am hoping to enlist him in a twofold campaign. One part of it is that all of us who want to intervene should approach the Chancellor and ask him to lift VAT on school clothing—full stop. We should also ask him to give a direction to school governors in a way I think is going to emerge during the debate, and I will touch on that as well.

We are facing an open goal, because the year that the Minister came into the House of Commons, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) introduced a Bill saying how absurd it was that there was a 14-year cut-off—a point some of us may come back to. He pointed out that, for an average-sized 14-year-old, it means that VAT is applied where their collar size is over 14½ inches and where they wear jumpers with a 34-inch chest and upwards, trousers with waists of 28 inches and upwards or skirts with a 26-inch waist and upwards.

The key person supporting my hon. Friend—I will call him my hon. Friend because I agree very much with his views—was the Prime Minister. She was not then the Prime Minister; she was a Back Bencher. This was a topic dear to her heart, so I hope, when all of us together make an approach to the Prime Minister, and through her to the Chancellor, that we are going to get a massive amount of support for my hon. Friend and a constructive response.

I am hoping for a twofold response. The first part is that we scrap VAT on school clothing. If people can provide evidence that it is for a child at school, that will exempt the actual product, just as people with disability get some VAT exemptions when they can prove the status of their disability. Secondly, we want the Minister of State who drives schools policy to give a commitment that he will write to school heads and governors and ask them to do several things. First, school governors should undertake a pricing each year in local stores or wherever they request parents to shop on the cost of the school uniform. Secondly, there should be standard items from many suppliers rather than just one or, if lucky, two. Thirdly, if the school wants to distinguish itself from others, it should do it by standard colours that can be bought in many shops, not by specific blazers that are only to be bought in certain places.

I think other Members may want to come in on the actual costs of games kits, and I will quickly touch on all those issues. However, I also want to thank people from Birkenhead and beyond, because we had the most extraordinary response from there and from around the country about today—I did not know people wanted to follow a Facebook link to Birkenhead—and those people wrote in with their comments about the horrors.

I know how well this debate will be received in my constituency, where one parent contacted me to tell me about the extortionate £135 cost of their children’s school uniforms. The fact is that parents should be allowed to go to the high street, the supermarket or anywhere to get a school uniform. That is what happened under the last Labour Government—it was stated in the guidance, and it should be reintroduced.

That is a suggestion for the Minister. It could be guidance; I would love it to made be stronger than guidance—that schools must do this. I will come back to that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I raised this issue when I was first elected last year, because a constituent had similarly come to me with the cost of uniforms. I was surprised that the Government committed to legislate to ensure schools did the right thing back in 2015. I received a letter from the Minister last month saying they are not going to do this until the next Session, which means at least five years since the first commitment was made. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the increasing costs of living that parents have to bear, a five-year delay to do something that the Government committed to do back in 2015 would be a pretty poor show?

It is a very poor show. There is a myth going around that we have no time to legislate because of Brexit. Ms McDonagh, I am sure you would think that the rubbish we debate in the Chamber would not be suitable for Westminster Hall and would just be filling up time. The Prime Minister believes we are all very busy with important legislation; we are simply not. I am really grateful to my hon. Friend. Why can the Cabinet Legislative Committee not give us time to introduce a Bill?

I am really grateful to my right hon. Friend for securing the debate. Millthorpe School introduced a new school uniform this summer and it has meant that children have been excluded from class. When the Minister is writing to heads, perhaps saying that no child should be excluded—this is doubly stigmatising a child because they are poor and because they cannot afford the right uniform—will he also instruct all schools that they must recycle uniforms, not just on cost grounds but on environmental grounds, to ensure that a school uniform is affordable for absolutely everyone?

It is very good giving way, because these are points that I would have made otherwise. I merely underscore the point my hon. Friend has just made about how it may not be a one-off set of costs but an increasing set of costs through the year. Of course, if someone has young lads, who are all too often separated from their uniform and their games kit, the costs mount tremendously.

In preparing for this debate, we had a Feeding Birkenhead meeting a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about this debate. There were 22 mothers in the room who support Feeding Birkenhead. Practically all of them were either grandparents or parents. They all said, “We can actually give you examples,” and all of them have given me examples. There have been examples on Facebook—the House of Commons Facebook for these matters has got a huge number of responses from parents. I said that, during this debate, I would do what Ernest Bevin did when he appeared before the wages committee for dockers, where he laid out how much food the dockers would get from their wages and asked the independent panel if it thought that was adequate. One mother listed the cost of the uniform—I will hold the document up so the camera can see it. I will give it to the Minister afterwards—I do not expect him to read it now, but I jolly well hope it is going into the camera.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this important debate. I, too, have had a number of examples from across my constituency. A school uniform often costs in excess of £120 in Barnsley East. Does he agree—I know he does—that that is totally unacceptable? We need to look at ways to bring down the costs. Perhaps one way to do so is for governing bodies and local authorities to use their power to bulk buy.

All these ideas are here for the Minister to pick up and run with, particularly given that he has the Prime Minister’s support on this issue.

Some of the parents who wrote to me from Birkenhead and beyond have bills that are £300-plus for a school uniform, and they also face the devastating cost of games kits. I hold up another document from a mother, listing a games kit. When my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) saw it, she jumped and said, “Look at that—emblems are being put on the items, which adds enormously to the cost.” That parent—a young woman—has a child in school who has to have two different games kit cases to bring the stuff to school.

I was absolutely horrified about that. I met the staff of one school and asked why they put labels on trousers and skirts. They said that, previously, they tested girls’ trousers by pulling them away from the leg. Clearly, that is completely inappropriate. We need to set guidance to ensure that uniforms can be bought from standard retailers, so that badges are not put on trousers, skirts and other bits of kit.

Again, I see the Minister busily rewriting his speech—[Laughter.] We are laughing, but I know that nobody outside will mistake that: our comments are dead serious. I have heard horror stories about parents going without food to provide uniforms. They do not want their children to look different from other children, and they wake up at night worrying about it. This is an incredibly serious debate, but we are making some of our points as humorously as possible because we know we have got the Minister on our side.

My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this really important debate. The points he has been making are really serious. Buying school uniforms potentially plunges parents into poverty, but it also forces them to pick certain schools over others because of the expense of the uniforms. The previous Labour Government introduced a statutory school admissions code that explicitly required schools to prevent the cost of school uniforms from getting in the way of admission. Perhaps the Minister will consider reintroducing it.

It is really great that all my best points are being taken. The Government say they are concerned about social mobility, but school uniform costs affect parents’ choices about which school they send their children to, irrespective of where they come not in the 11-plus selection but in the selection of schools. I thank my hon. Friend for that immensely important point.

I am a Welsh MP, and these issues are devolved to the Welsh Government. There is a different way of doing it. I urge my hon. Friend the shadow Minister and the Minister to look at what the Welsh Government are doing on school uniform grants. In Wales, a £1.7 million fund is available for children on free school meals. Parents can apply for a £125 grant, which can be spent not just on school uniforms but on sports kits, school trips and technologies. There are better ways of delivering, particularly for the least well-off children. If they are on free school meals, their parents can apply for that grant, which is worth up to £125. It is for reception children and children aged 11 who are going into year 7, so it is across the age range. I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree that there are better and different ways of supporting the least well off.

That is a particularly good one, isn’t it, Minister? The Prime Minister has told us that austerity is coming to an end, so she will want ideas about how to bring it to an end. Copying a proven model—we are not making up something that may not work—seems an admirable way to advance.

I am going to conclude, because the spokesman on our side—if I can still refer to him like that—has quite a bit to say, and we all wish to quiz the Minister. We have heard about the huge cost and about how arbitrary the 14-year cut-off point is. Will the Minister tell us when it was last reviewed? One person wrote on Facebook:

“Our son is 14, going into year 10, 6ft 4, size 12 feet, 48 inch chest!”

He has to have men’s shirts with very long arms so he can feel part of his school. It is very important that we get promises about improving the situation, not just for some but for all. There is a really important issue behind many of our contributions: we should be able to buy uniforms in many shops. For the many, not the few shops—that is what the policy should be.

The Minister should think about how he will lead us in approaching the Prime Minister. I say that in all seriousness, because we actually want to help him with this deadly serious topic. We want to help him with the instructions he will give to schools about, for example, costing their uniforms every year, getting supplies from standard suppliers, and the absurdity of the price for a games kit. If people want a uniform to be distinct, they should pick a colour that is commonly available and different from other school uniforms, rather than one that is available only from a single supplier.

I am really grateful to the Members who have turned up to the debate. We have been surprised by the number of letters, emails and phone calls that we have received. We have clearly just been through a horrendous period for parents, and I hope that they will not have to face that for another year.

Order. I was going to call the shadow Minister, but I have been corrected by the Clerk. The Opposition spokesperson cannot make a speech in a half-hour debate.

What I might do, if you are tolerant, Ms McDonagh, is take a few interventions from the shadow Minister so he can make a few points.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I attended his constituency fundraiser in 2010, and I am reminded of the event because—

Can I just rewind? I had spoken with the Opposition spokesman, and we were under the impression that he could speak. I would have allowed him to intervene before I sat down. Could I say that I had not sat down, Ms McDonagh?

I would like to do anything I can to facilitate the right hon. Gentleman, but the guidance I have been handed states that during a half-hour debate, neither speeches nor interventions from Opposition Front Benchers are permitted, as is the rule in the House. I apologise.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for my quick shuffle to the Back Benches. The previous occupant of the shadow Minister’s seat was my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds). I remember attending his constituency event in 2010 at St Anselm’s, with the former Member for Stalybridge and Hyde, who was the guest speaker. I point out to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), in his current state of exile, that St Anselm was exiled twice by William II and Henry I, so I suspect that whatever happens in his political career in the weeks, months and years ahead, he will be a champion for people in poverty.

The debate is really about eight years of austerity and Government policy. Universal credit is failing and driving people into debt, hunger and even destitution. Over 4 million children are growing up in poverty and a million people are forced to go to food banks. The Government should be hanging their heads in shame that families cannot afford to buy school uniforms for their children. A number of hon. Members have pointed out that we have a system in which children are sent home from school because their parents cannot afford to meet the dress codes.

I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead will agree that we need to know what the Minister is doing to ensure that children do not lose time in school because their parents cannot afford to meet unrealistic school uniform demands. When will the Minister ensure that the Government pledge to make school uniform guidance legally binding, and what are the Minister and the Government doing to address the ever-increasing challenge faced by parents to pay for the basics to enable their children to attend and participate in school? As my right hon. Friend rightly said, people are putting off buying food because they have to buy uniforms.

Finally, will the Minister pledge to end, once and for all, the perverse situation in which poverty acts as a barrier to children attending school because of uniforms?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh, and to hear the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) speaking from the Back Benches, which is where all the best people in the Labour party sit. It is also a real pleasure to hear the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) lead this important debate on the cost of school uniforms. I pay tribute to him for his work with the all-party parliamentary group on hunger, and for his local work with Feeding Birkenhead, which has benefited thousands of children with meals and activities during the school holidays, as well as school breakfasts during term time.

The Department strongly encourages schools to have a uniform as it can play an important role in contributing to the ethos of a school and setting an appropriate tone. It is common for a school to have a dress code, and the overwhelming majority of schools require pupils to wear a uniform. For pupils, uniforms can remove competition to keep up with the latest fashion trends. For teachers, uniform can support discipline and motivation among pupils as part of a wider behaviour policy. For parents, uniform means they do not need to worry about what their children are wearing or the costs associated with buying the latest fashions or brands. A school uniform can also help foster equality among pupils and support the development of a whole school ethos.

One of the primary purposes of a uniform is to remove differences between pupils. With a standard uniform in place, it is harder to discern a pupil’s background; instead, what is important is their character and personality. In these ways, uniforms can play an important part in helping pupils feel safe at school. While decisions about school uniform are made by headteachers and governors—it is right that they continue to make these decisions—we always encourage schools to have uniform policies for those reasons.

In 2015, the Department commissioned a survey on the cost of school uniform, which provides the most recent information the Department holds on the matter. It indicated that the average cost of most items, except the school bag, decreased between 2007 and 2015, once adjusted for inflation. Moreover, most parents were pleased with the overall cost and quality of their child’s uniform. Over two-thirds of parents were happy with the cost of uniform and PE kit.

As was expressed in the debate, it is important that we are not complacent. While school uniform can have a hugely positive impact on a school in terms of providing cohesion and community, it may present—as we have heard—a financial burden on some, particularly lower-income families. In the same survey on the cost of school uniform, nearly one-fifth of parents reported that they had suffered financial hardship as a result of purchasing their child’s school uniform. The cost of uniform should not act as a barrier to obtaining a good school place. We want all children to be able to attend a school of their parents’ choice wherever possible.

I will not because of the time; I am sorry.

No school uniform should be so expensive as to leave pupils or their families feeling unable to apply to or attend a school. One hon. Member raised the issue of the admissions code, which explicitly sets out that,

“Admission authorities must ensure that…policies around school uniform or school trips do not discourage parents from applying for a place for their child.”

It is for the governing body of a school 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, governing bodies should give cost considerations the highest priority when making decisions about their school’s uniform.

The Department publishes best practice guidance on school uniform, the latest version of which was published in September 2013. That guidance makes it clear that when schools set their policy on school uniform, they should

“consider the cost, the available supply sources and year round availability of the proposed uniform to ensure it is providing best value for money for parents”,

and on the important issue of games or PE kits, that schools should

“ensure that the PE uniform is practical, comfortable and appropriate to the activity involved, and that consideration is given to the cost of compulsory PE clothing”.

That is non-statutory guidance for schools.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead is right to draw attention to the issue of school uniforms and VAT. EU law allows the UK to have a zero rate of VAT on clothing and footwear designed for young children which is not suitable for older people. Therefore, clothing designed for children under 14 years old has no VAT on it. Over time, as children grow, their clothing becomes indistinguishable from that of adults. HM Revenue and Customs needs to operate size limits for the VAT relief to comply with EU law. The limits are based on the average size of 13-year-old children, using data provided by the British Standards Institution. It is inevitable that some children within the intended age range—such as the child cited by the right hon. Gentleman—will require larger articles of clothing or footwear that do not qualify for the relief. The Government are unable, under EU law, to extend the relief to encompass children beyond the average size. That is one of the reasons that our guidance is so firm in saying that schools should ensure their school uniform is affordable. I know the right hon. Gentleman has strong views on the EU and he may well get his way on this issue in due course.

Our existing best practice guidance emphasises the need for uniforms to be affordable. In fact, we advise school governing bodies to give the highest priority to cost considerations when making decisions about their school uniform. Most schools already ensure that their uniforms are affordable. However, for the minority of schools that may not, the Government have announced their plan to legislate to put the school uniform guidance on a statutory footing to send a clear signal that we expect schools to ensure uniform costs are reasonable.

The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) raised the issue of financial help and school funding grants. In England, some local authorities provide discretionary grants to help with buying school uniforms. Local authorities that offer such grants set their own criteria for eligibility, and schools may offer clothing schemes, such as second-hand uniforms at reduced prices. Schools may also choose to use their pupil premium funding to offer subsidies or grants for school uniforms.

The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised the issue of recycling, of games kits in particular. I remember that I wore a second-hand rugby kit in some of the years at my school, and that was significantly cheaper than buying the kit brand new—I was not a particularly good rugby player, so it would not have been money well spent.

To conclude, I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead for raising this issue and to other right hon. and hon. Members for contributing to the debate. Important issues have been raised. I hope that he is content to some extent that the Government echo his concern and content about the steps that we have taken to underline the importance of the cost of school uniform in helping the most disadvantaged members of society to access to a good school place and a good education. We want to ensure that the cost of uniform does not act as a barrier to getting a good education and a good school place.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).