[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered school uniform costs.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, although it feels a little like we are in the graveyard shift at the end of a very long Parliament. As I said to the Minister just before the debate, it is a genuine pleasure to talk to him about education once more. I started this parliamentary Session talking about education, so to finish it this way feels complete. I want to focus on the cost of school uniforms, and I will make recommendations that I hope schools and the Minister will follow.
After nine years of cuts, benefit cuts and stagnating wages, an increasing number of parents are unable to meet the basic cost of living, and the knock-on effect of that reality is a rise in child poverty. Currently, 8.3 million working-age adults and 4.6 million children are living in poverty. The numbers continue to rise, and forecasts predict that they are set to exceed the record levels of the early 1990s, which should concern us all deeply.
Recent research has brought to light many of the negative effects that growing up in poverty has on children. Some are stark and brutal. In the most deprived areas of our country, girls can expect to live 20 fewer years of their lives in good health, compared with those in the least-deprived areas. For boys, it is 19 fewer years. Both genders are four times more likely to develop mental health problems by the age of 11.
The indignities and suffering brought about by poverty are often less obvious. Every September, we see children on their way to start the new school year looking very smart in their uniforms, and our thoughts might turn to our own, or perhaps our children’s, first day. I was a teacher, and I remember the pleasure of having my classroom windows overlook the children starting school and lining up with their brand-new book bags, which were nearly as big as them, as they stood outside, waiting to meet their new teacher.
I now see children in uniforms through a different set of eyes. I was deeply affected by the testimony of a group of mothers at an evidence session of the Select Committee on Education. They told us of the demands placed on them by the increasing cost of school uniforms. Uniform dress codes now rarely consist of a simple badged sweatshirt and dark trousers or a skirt; they now include shirts, ties, blazers, and PE kits, indoor and out, all branded and often available through only a single supplier. I was devasted by the parents’ description of skipping meals to try to meet the ever-increasing costs.
Tragically, those accounts do not represent rare and isolated circumstances. Research from the Children’s Society shows that nearly one in six families said that school uniforms were to blame for their having to cut back on food and other basic essentials. Its report, “The Wrong Blazer 2018: Time for action on school uniform costs”, revealed that families have to find an average of £340 per year for each child at secondary school—an increase of 7% since 2015. Parents of primary school children spent an average of £255—an increase of 2%.
Parentkind’s latest annual survey of parents confirms that upward pressure: 76% of parents reported that the cost of sending children to school is increasing, and more than half are worried about meeting that cost. The high cost of uniforms is in some cases maintained by school policies that insist that parents buy clothing from specialist shops, rather than giving them the choice of buying items at cheaper stores, such as supermarkets or high street chains. When parents had to buy two or more school uniform items from a specific supplier, spending was found to be an average of £71 per year higher for secondary school children and £77 higher per year for primary school children. Some schools demand that seemingly generic items, such as a pair of black trousers, a PE top or shorts, must carry the school badge or logo, which also locks parents into specific retailers.
My hon. Friend is making a very important speech. This matter was brought to my attention by my constituents when a school changed its uniform policy to have badged trousers, skirts, blazers and other items of clothing. Does she agree that schools can take matters into their own hands not only by having generic main items of clothing, but by using uniform exchanges, which not only help families that cannot afford school uniforms, but are good for the environment?
I completely agree. I will go on to talk about uniform exchanges and the impact on the environment. The House of Commons did some social media outreach in advance of this debate. Someone from Birmingham said: “My niece is from a disadvantaged school background and had to completely replace her school uniform within six months of starting a new secondary school.” Someone else wrote: “My dad needs to buy me a PE kit, which is around £80 for everything I need. I can’t do PE, and get detention every time I go to PE. I feel embarrassed going to PE knowing everyone will make fun of me not being able to afford the extreme costs.” There are many other examples.
I am interested in what the hon. Lady is saying, because I have also had people contact me. One lady said that supermarkets are an ideal place to go because she can get matching clothes. I was surprised to find that Tesco used to embroider badges on at parents’ request. It does not do it now, but the supplier will do it. Parents pay £4 for a pair of trousers, instead of something outrageous if it is from the key supplier. It is in the hands of the schools if they wish to do it.
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.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for sharing that example with us. She is making a powerful speech. A Huffington Post journalist recently visited Moorside primary school in Halifax and published an article that reflected not only on cuts in schools but on how poverty at home had an impact on a child’s learning, through hunger in the classroom and school uniforms. The article included some incredibly powerful images of tiny children’s feet in pumps with holes in them and of holes in school uniform sleeves. Does my hon. Friend agree that while the Government do support a number of schemes to make sure that children are fed and can learn in the classroom, there is not a great deal of support for families to pay uniform costs?
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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, for what inevitably will be the last time in this Parliament. It is also a pleasure to participate in a Westminster Hall debate; I have spoken in a large number of them and I am a happy to finish this Parliament speaking in one. The third pleasure is to follow the speech by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy).
Let me start with where we agree. I would like to hear from the Minister what the plans are for the guidance on school uniforms and whether it will be made statutory. For the reasons the hon. Lady set out, I fully accept the benefit of making that guidance statutory, as I think it will help. Where we tend to differ is in our attitude to school uniforms as a whole. I regard them as important and I have seen evidence, which I am happy to make available, that schools with a school uniform perform better and their children feel much more cohesive and part of something bigger. I would hate to lose that and, thinking back to my own time at school, the feeling of collectiveness that followed from it.
However, I agree that we need to help with the cost of school uniforms, which averages around £350. That is quite a lot, particularly for families at the bottom end of the pay scale. Interesting new methods have been developed to tackle that. I will come to one of them, but my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) mentioned another: putting pressure on organisations to allow badges to be sewn on to standard clothing, which is much cheaper and is accessible to everyone.
In my experience, many schools—I have not done a calculation on this, so I will not say most—take this issue into account and have their own schemes to help disadvantaged families afford uniforms, where one is in existence. Such schemes are very helpful. However, one of the most interesting schemes I have come across uses the internet to make what are, in effect, second-hand clothes much more widely available. I see a lot of attraction in that. People might argue, “Well, it’s second-hand clothing,” but the person who founded the charity that established that scheme was clear when she said, “Well, heavens; a school uniform, whether it’s new or not, looks second hand within two weeks of being worn.” That is absolutely true, so I do not think the fact that the clothing is second hand should play a major part in preventing anyone from being able to engage in that sort of transaction, and it has a material impact on the cost of the items concerned.
This is an important issue to have raised at the end of this Parliament. As I said, it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response about the statutory basis on which school clothing is to be founded.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to follow the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on securing the debate, and on her tireless work to raise the profile of an issue that for too long has flown beneath the radar, despite having a real and significant impact on our constituents’ lives.
According to the Children’s Society, 1 million children in England live in families that get into debt just to meet the rising cost of school uniforms. One in six families blames school uniform costs for having to cut back on food and other essentials. One resident in my constituency told me she had forked out more than £120 for one child’s school uniform and PE kit. That is a staggering amount to pay, but the reasons why people have to do so are well known. Some schools require compulsory branded items, some request expensive specialist gear, and others use single suppliers and retailers—even getting a financial incentive to do so. As if that were not enough, for many struggling parents this is an annual occurrence, as their children quickly grow out of purchased uniforms, and many must pay to clothe several children.
This summer, in response to the concern among parents in my constituency, I organised the Barnsley East school uniform exchange, which was an opportunity for those who had uniforms they no longer needed to pass them on to other families in need. I was blown away by the response. Not only did we manage to provide uniforms for children and families who might have struggled otherwise, but we helped to facilitate a community’s coming together, sharing resources and helping one another out. It was a testament to the incredible generosity in Barnsley, and such was the response that we already have uniforms ready and waiting to go for the next school year, when I plan to continue the exchange.
Ultimately, however, we should not have to rely on the generosity of our friends and neighbours to help provide even the basics, especially when it comes to children and their experiences in education. Provisions and guidance to schools to ensure that uniforms remain affordable and accessible should be reinstated following their dilution under this Government, and greater ability for local authorities to keep the costs down would undoubtedly make a difference. No family should be left vulnerable, and no child left disadvantaged, because of what for too many is the extortionate price of education. Schools, local authorities and communities can come together to tackle the burden, but action must start with the Government.
It is always a pleasure to speak in Westminster Hall. I thank the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) for what he said; it is nice almost to complete this Parliament in Westminster Hall—I suspect there may be one more debate to come, but that is by the by.
I am very pleased to be involved in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on bringing it forward. This is a massive issue in my constituency. The Minister does not have responsibility for it, because it is a devolved matter—if the Assembly were working, it would be sorting it out—but, if I may, I would like to make some remarks in relation to Northern Ireland.
This is a big issue in my constituency simply because, as the hon. Lady and everyone else who spoke said, a number of families are in the clutches of in-work poverty. That term probably has not been used very often in the House, but it happens to people. I find there is a squeezed lower middle class, who find it more difficult than anybody else just to try to get through because they are outside the benefit system, so they feel the pain. They go to work, yet the money coming in does not satisfy the money going out, particularly in August and September every year, as parents scramble to get school uniforms.
Some retailers that are aware of the pressure on parents offer packages. For instance—nobody will know this—Crawford’s across from my advice centre on Frances Street in Newtownards has offers online for all the major schools and some others, designed to help parents get a good deal. Mr Crawford has been doing that for umpteen years, and he does it very well. However, by their nature, offers are time limited, and if someone does not have the money in August and September, they must scrape together even more to meet their child’s basic school needs.
Expensive uniforms are another form of discrimination: if someone cannot afford the uniform, they cannot attend the school. They may have the educational qualities, but can they buy the uniform? No, they cannot. Unfortunately, therefore, parents may have to make difficult decisions for children who have the educational quality. Everybody, including the Minister, wants everyone to have the same opportunity for educational achievement, but someone who is poor and does not have much income will sometimes make decisions based not on how bright wee Johnny or Sally is but on what they can afford.
In 2017, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People published a report stating that the average cost of a school uniform in Northern Ireland is £109 per child, with yearly education costs well over £1,200 a year. I am going to mention some things that hon. Members have already mentioned, because it is important that they are on the record. Last year, a survey found that more than a third of families in Northern Ireland go into debt at the beginning of the new school year because of rising costs. A third of families in Northern Ireland go into debt just to get the uniform to get their children to school. School uniform grants are available from the Education Authority to families in receipt of universal credit or certain other benefits, but, at best, those grants cover only a fraction of the cost of the typical school uniform, and people are struggling greatly.
We should try to encourage children to be active, yet when they join a school club—hockey, football, rugby, athletics or whatever it may be—and travel to matches, they must be in their PE tracksuit with full school insignia, and then their actual playing gear and all the rest. Again, that is a method of discrimination. It can be heartbreaking for a family on the poverty line to realise that their child is good enough for the school team but that they cannot be part of it because the family cannot afford the prohibitive cost of the uniform. With full PE kits starting at £240—those are the cheaper options—and children needing one at least every other year, that is a massive cost. Let us be honest: the hon. Member for Henley mentioned how a uniform can look well used in a couple of weeks, and PE kits can get damaged as well, so that £240 may be unfortunately only the start of the cost. For that reason, some children are not taking part in school clubs, staying away not because they do not have the interest, the enthusiasm, the energy or the ability but because their mums and dads cannot afford the massive cost.
We are in 2019, and I truly thought these days were behind us, yet it is clear that children are penalised in their education because their parents work as hard as they can but have difficulty just making ends meet. I believed that was why working tax credit was created, to step in, fill the gaps and help with school uniforms and the now obligatory hockey, football, Gaelic football and rugby uniforms, as it should. Yet unfortunately in August and September, and at other times of the year, whenever parents come to see me, I see at first hand in my office that it is not working. We need more help for those who are working and yet are on the breadline—the working poor. That is a real issue.
At this stage, I wish to thank some people in my constituency who do great work. The likes of the Ards Community Network, Friends of Regent House and other residents’ groups have introduced a system, like the one referred to by the hon. Member for Henley, where used uniforms that are still in good condition can be dropped off to help those who cannot do it all. Hon. Members have referred to similar organisations. Those initiatives must be applauded and encouraged, but they highlight the failure of the system we have in place. That we need those initiatives illustrates clearly that we need help.
As a side issue, the Trussell Trust opened its first food bank in Northern Ireland in Newtownards in December 2011. I was there at the opening. It is now operating in more than 20 locations across the region. Families in crisis are up by over 13%. The welfare system is missing those people on the peripheries. I sincerely ask for a review of the school uniform grants procedure to help those on the edge.
I know that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland and that the Minister has no responsibility for what happens there, but hon. Members’ reflections are mirrored in my constituency as well. School uniform grants must help those who may be above the threshold on paper but in real life are struggling.
It is so important that children are happy at school. In my constituency and across Northern Ireland—I am sure this affects other hon. Members—we have some of the highest figures for young people at primary school level, and certainly at secondary school level, with mental health problems. Why is that? It is because they are not happy at school. I suggest very gently to the Minister and hon. Members that we must improve the quality of life for our children at school. We must ensure that they all have equal opportunities in education and so on. If that happens, we can make a change. My question to the Minister is this: when will that happen?
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on securing the debate on the last day of this Parliament. It is not quite the graveyard shift, as she put it. We may be competing with the House on who finishes first—I believe the valedictory speeches have just started—and I know you are anxious to get in the final word of this Parliament, Mr Pritchard. I thank my hon. Friend for her work. She is an indefatigable campaigner on education, not just as a former trade unionist in education but as a former teacher, like me. Her passion shines through.
I thank all Members who contributed to the debate. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly said that uniforms bring a common identity. Few schools up and down the land do not have some sort of uniform. He also talked about second-hand clothes, as did my hon. Friend. I might not be forgiven for saying this, as a Mancunian MP from Cottonopolis, but we now know that cotton production is one of the greatest polluters on the planet. We must begin to think of new ways to go forward sustainably. Recycling, reuse and reduction of cotton is therefore important.
I was taken aback by the community organising project of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), putting power into the hands of people who struggle to purchase uniform individually. Bringing people together for a school uniform exchange is a remarkably good idea. If she does not mind, I may well steal it for my own constituency.
As ever, whether in Westminster Hall debates or Adjournment debates, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made some strong points. Poverty is common across our islands, and it is a form of discrimination if parents have to fork out too much for uniforms.
We know that common uniform policy reduces bullying in schools, and I saw it for myself. Sometimes as a schoolteacher I would dread non-uniform days. The school where I taught was in a very mixed area. There were some rich areas from which children would come in wearing designer Nike gear, and some came in wearing supermarket gear. Even at quite a young age, they knew the difference. That is important.
I think of my constituency, which StepChange says has 3,000 families containing 5,000 children in toxic debt—the most in England, for sure—owing about £14 million to utility companies, dependent on payday lenders and pawn brokers to get to the end of the month. They are unable to pay when their white goods break down and they are really struggling to get by. I also have the highest number of social tenants who are affected by the bedroom tax—or the spare room subsidy. This is therefore a timely debate to finish off this Parliament.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle said, nine years of austerity has been unrelenting. Universal credit is failing, driving people to debt and even destitution. For many in my constituency and up and down the land, and particularly for those in faith communities, the two-child policy for child benefit is an utter disgrace. I pray for the day of a Labour Government. If one comes about in a few weeks’ time, that is one of the first things we will deal with. If we do have a Conservative Government, I pray for the day on which they will change their mind, because it is driving people to despair.
More than 4 million children are growing up in poverty. More than 1 million are forced to go to food banks, and it is predicted to get worse. My food banks coalition came to me towards the end of August—we will all have faced this—saying, “We have run out of food, Mr Kane.” I asked, “Why have you run out of food? We have churches, civil society, supermarkets and business contributing week in, week out.” They said, “It’s school uniform buying week.” They were out of food at the Wythenshawe food bank. The Government should be hanging their head in shame that those families are in that situation.
There are also signs that our increasingly fragmented schools system hampers what we can offer our parents and children. It is a system that allows free schools and academies to act as islands, independent of their communities and the needs of the children they are supposed to support. On this Government’s watch, we have seen parent governors stripped from school governing bodies up and down the land. It is a system with no means by which parents can hold a school to account, and the Government have failed entirely to act on parents’ concerns. Academies and free schools set rigid dress codes with expensive uniforms that cannot be bought on the high street, and children are sent home from school because their parents cannot afford to meet those dress codes.
The system has exacerbated sending children home, with 10,000 children off-rolled in the last year alone. We give a charter to criminals and county line gangs when we send children home and we have no idea where they are. The system is broken. What is the Minister doing to ensure that children do not lose time in school because their parents cannot meet unrealistic demands on school uniforms? When will the Minister ensure that the Government meet their pledge to make school uniform guidance legally binding? What are the Minister and the Government doing to address the ever-increasing challenge faced by parents to pay for the basics? What will they do to ensure that support is available when they have overseen the abolition by stealth of the school uniform grant?
Time after time, Labour has pressed Ministers to take action, but yet again we are well into a school year with parents paying the price for the Government’s failure to act. The Government pledged statutory guidance in 2015, yet, four years and three Prime Ministers on, they still hide behind the excuse that they could not find parliamentary time. It is clearer than ever that parents, children and teachers need a Government that will act on their behalf—a Labour Government with a national education service. Will the Minister pledge to us today to end once and for all the perverse situation whereby poverty acts as a barrier to children attending school?
Finally, may I thank all Members who have contributed today and to the parliamentary Session? Putting one’s name on a ballot paper, from whatever political party, is a brave act: an increasingly braver act these days. I wish all Members good luck and I thank the Minister for his courtesy over the past few years. I have stood opposite him many times in many debates. I thank the House staff, the Doorkeepers and all who keep us safe and functioning in this place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I hope it will not be for the last time, even if it is the last time during this long parliamentary Session. I echo the comments made by the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), whose views I share. It is a worthwhile occupation to stand for election to public office in our great democracy. It is a pity that politicians are treated in the way that too many of us are. We need to do more across parties to re-establish the safety and position of politicians and how they are regarded by the public. I am sure that together we can do a lot to enhance their reputation.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) on securing this important debate and on her powerful opening speech. I am aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns, given her role as a member of the Education Committee. I also congratulate her on her work with the RE:Uniform campaign, and the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) on similar campaigns in her constituency. Such campaigns facilitate the exchange of second-hand school uniforms for many in both their constituencies. I am sure that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East, will not be the only person stealing her ideas.
The hon. Gentleman said that school uniforms reduce bullying and that when he was a teacher he dreaded non-school uniform days, which reveal too harshly who has designer clothes and who does not. That is why I am a keen adherent and supporter of school uniform in this country. Where I disagree with him is on how we ensure that poverty is reduced to an absolute minimum. A driving objective of Conservative economic policy is to reduce poverty. We have the lowest level of unemployment since the mid-1970s. There are fewer workless households and fewer children living in workless households today as a consequence of our presiding over a strong and what I would call a stable economy, which is our objective going forward. We want to maintain a stable and strong economy, keeping unemployment low and the number of jobs at record levels. That is how we reduce poverty in this country. Opposition Members should know that no Labour Government has ever left office with unemployment lower than when they came into office. People need to take that very seriously if they are as determined as we are to reduce poverty in this country.
I am ever mindful of the different aspect in Northern Ireland, but I am conscious of those who are in in-work poverty. Have the Government had an opportunity to assess the extent of that? In my constituency it is enormous, but I suspect it is the same in every other hon. Member’s.
The way to reduce in-work poverty is to have a strong economy that creates the wealth that everybody can benefit from. We introduced the national living wage to ensure that people on low wages gain a bigger share of the wealth that our economy creates. Also, we have raised the personal allowance tax threshold to something nearer £11,000 or £12,000, so that people on low incomes pay significantly less tax. Millions of people have been taken out of tax altogether. That is how to tackle poverty and low income. A strong economy with very low levels of unemployment means that wages are pushed up because of market forces.
We can all agree that the cost of school uniform is an important issue for many families. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak about it in response to a debate on this topic secured by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) last year, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue again today. If schools can ensure that uniform items are available at a reasonable cost to parents, there are significant positive benefits that school uniforms can provide. The Government strongly encourage schools to have a school a uniform.
It is common for schools also to have a school dress code, and the overwhelming majority of schools require pupils to wear a uniform. A school uniform can play an important role in contributing to the ethos of a school and setting an appropriate tone. It can help foster a sense of equality and belonging for pupils and reduce pressure for pupils and parents to have to spend money on keeping up with the latest fashions or trends. It can also support discipline and motivation among pupils as part of a wider behaviour policy.
A primary purpose of a uniform is to remove differences between pupils. If everyone is dressed the same, it underlines that we are all equal. With a standard uniform in place, it is harder to tell a pupil’s background. In such ways, uniforms can play an important part in helping pupils feel safe and happy at school. Although decisions about school uniform are made by head teachers and governing bodies, and it is right that they continue to make such decisions, I encourage all schools to have uniform policies for the reasons I have outlined.
When speaking about this topic, I have consistently said that I am clear that the cost of uniform should not act as a barrier to obtaining a good school place. I want all children to be able to attend a school of their parents’ choice wherever possible. 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. That is made very clear in the admissions code.
Looking back to when I went to secondary school—which I appreciate is some years ago now—I am reminded that the school provided a list of the uniform and equipment that I would need. The cost of all those things was a challenge for my family, and there were things on that list that we paid for that I never used in five years. Could we not do something very quickly and simply to prevent families from having to fund those costs without additional cost to the Government?
Certainly schools should be careful in requiring purchases of equipment that is not needed. It is a loose use of other people’s money by the school, so I share the hon. Lady’s concern about that. I am proud of the pupil premium, which the previous Conservative-led Government introduced. It is about £2.5 billion a year—nearly £1,000 for every secondary school pupil and about £1,300 for every primary school pupil on free school meals. The money can be used to pay for uniforms and equipment that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds might need to have.
One of the points made by some of parents was that when a school is re-brokered as a different academy trust, all the parents then have to buy the new branded uniform for that trust. If the Minister is looking at amending or improving the guidance, could the DFE not say that, in the case of re-brokering, parents will be allowed to continue to use the uniform until the pupil has grown out of it, and can simply purchase new in the new school academy, rather than having to potentially change in September and then in January?
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 the Member for Henley (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.
We keep those issues under review. As has been pointed out, we are running out of time in this Session, but if a Conservative Government are returned with a functioning majority, I am sure that we will give urgent priority to legislating on the matter in question.
The CMA stated its approval of our commitment to place our guidance on a statutory footing when a suitable legislative opportunity arises, as I am sure it will after the general election. In turn, the Secretary of State has reaffirmed our commitment to do so, which will send a clear signal that we expect schools to ensure that uniform costs are reasonable. I should make it clear that the Government’s stated intention to make school uniform affordable does not undermine our commitment to the principle of uniform itself. Putting our guidance on a statutory footing is directly intended to ensure that school uniforms are affordable for all.
In England, some local authorities provide discretionary grants to help with buying school uniforms. It is a matter for the local authority to decide whether to offer those grants and to set their own criteria for eligibility. Schools may offer individual clothing schemes, such as offering second-hand uniform at reduced prices, as in the uniform scheme that we have heard about today. As I have said, schools can choose to use their pupil premium funding to offer subsidies or grants for school uniforms. Again, that will be a decision for the school to make.
I am enormously grateful for the support that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle has given on this issue. She has raised some important concerns, and I hope that she is relatively happy that the Government also recognise the cost of school uniform as important. We want all children, wherever they are and whatever their background, to be able to secure a good school place, and we do not want the cost of uniform to act as a barrier. The steps that we have taken underline the importance of the cost of school uniform in helping the most disadvantaged members of our society to get access to a good education. The Government have made a commitment to legislate on the issue, which we intend to honour.
I thank all Members who have taken part in this debate. There has been broad agreement on the need to have a school uniform, as it helps to disguise some of the differences in income levels between families. There is also broad agreement on where we need to go forward. Let me push the Minister a little further. He referred to statutory guidance, but I think that should also include a limit on the number of branded items that can be required, and on overall cost. Schools should be encouraged to show and share the cost of their uniforms.
I have one final little push—“If you don’t ask, you don’t get”, as I was always told—to ask whether the Minister will consider introducing grants that are available throughout England, and not linked to a local authority’s ability to pay for them. We know that local authorities have suffered cuts and cannot afford to pay for those grants, but they should be available to every child, regardless of where they live. On that slightly demanding note, I thank all hon. Members—it has been a pleasure to take part in this debate and to continue campaigning on education; and, in the words of Arnie Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered school uniform costs.