I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
On 9 January, I was lucky enough to be drawn No. 1 in the ballot—the first private Member’s Bill of this parliamentary Session. I will admit that at first I was not aware of the significance of that, until the avalanche of emails started to arrive, as did the meeting requests, the demands from the press and, of course, a mighty big lobby for very worthy causes. It gives me a real opportunity as a Labour MP to change the law—something of a rarity in recent years. Although the date of the Second Reading of the Bill is Friday the 13th, which may be unlucky for some, I am hoping that for thousands of hard-pressed families up and down our country, this day will be a milestone on the way to helping those in our schools and our constituencies.
My Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill gives MPs from across the Chamber the chance to step up and do the right thing for our constituents. It is a genuine opportunity to put words into action, to change the law and to make school uniforms more affordable for families struggling with often very high and prohibitive costs. Today is an opportunity to help children such as Emily who, rather than facing the indignity of her classmates knowing that her family did not have the money to replace a lost PE uniform, asked her mum to write a sick note saying that she was injured. Today, Members across the House have the opportunity to help children such as Callum, who was put in detention because his parents did not have the cash to replace his blazer, which no longer fitted him because of a growth spurt.
As is often the case with yah-boo politics and spin in the media, the intentions of legislation can get lost in the narrative. I assure Members that the Bill is not anti-school uniform. The Bill is not a gateway to some slippery slope that paves the way to the abolition of school uniforms—far from it. As a teenager who went to a school in the ’80s that did not have a uniform, I can vouch from experience that that was not a good thing. It highlighted the haves and the have-nots and the fashions of the day.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important measure forward. Does he agree that a well-structured uniform policy can work out significantly cheaper for parents than a non-uniform policy?
I do; I concur completely with the hon. Gentleman. When I was at school and people did not have a uniform—as I said, it highlighted the haves and the have-nots—the fashions of the day were really bad, particularly if someone had a highlighted mullet or, in some cases, Day-Glo leg warmers.
I believe, as does the Minister, that school uniforms are a good thing if they are affordable and inclusive. They are one of the ways that schools can poverty-proof the school day. They make children equal and take away the pressures to have to wear the latest fashionable and often very expensive branded clothes and shoes. Yet, too many schools needlessly apply high prices to a multitude of branded items of uniform, including jumpers, blazers, ties, hats, PE bags, coats and even drama socks.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue is also the quality of the uniform? I speak from experience as the mother of two teenagers. One attends a girls’ comprehensive just down the road. I bought her blazer when she was going into year 7. She is now in year 11 and about to leave the statutory part of school and she is still in that blazer. It has been excellent quality.
My son, who is in year 9, is now on his fourth blazer because the quality has not been the same. He is in a different school. I absolutely support this Bill, but it must be about quality and ensuring that parents do not have to keep buying uniform. Obviously, children have growth spurts, but the quality of the uniform should be as good as we would expect.
I do not disagree about quality, but we should also think about choice and affordability, and that is the key thing that this Bill addresses.
One parent wrote to me about a particular school that demands a different uniform for each house group. The march towards “if a child wears it, brand it with an embroidered logo” must end, to drive down costs and make uniforms genuinely inclusive.
I am delighted to sponsor the Bill. The hon. Gentleman mentions branding. Will he confirm that it is not his intention to stop all branding on school uniforms? It is quite appropriate for schools to require a badge on the blazer to promote the identity of the school and pride in the school, and he is not trying to restrict the ability of a school properly to brand its uniform.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for sponsoring the Bill. I can confirm that it is not anti-branding. As we go through proceedings on the Bill, things will become clear. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention.
The Bill also paves the way to extending choice and stimulating competition in the local retail market to bring down costs for many hard-pressed families—a point well made by the Competition and Markets Authority back in 2015, when it reminded school heads and governors to avoid making their uniforms available only from a single specialist retailer, which undermines competition and the equalising properties of school uniforms. Many parents are left unable to afford the right uniforms and have got into debt. There is also an effect on children. Wearing the wrong school uniform can lead to a child being bullied, left out or even excluded from school, which of course impacts on their education. The Children’s Society estimates that 500,000 children were sent home for wearing the wrong clothes—something I have had confirmed by many of my constituents.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Sometimes people are sent home for really petty things like the wrong colour of socks. I know of a case in which a badge was cut out and put on a black jumper, but that still did not conform with the requirement for what was supposed to be the appropriate jumper.
I agree with my hon. Friend; this is just simply sad and unacceptable. Children should never lose out on education because of the family’s financial situation. Research released and updated today by the Children’s Society, which has been working very closely with me on the Bill, found that parents spend around £337 per year on school uniforms for each secondary school child and as much as £315 a year for a primary school child.
It would be remiss of me not to mention research that I have seen from the Schoolwear Association, which says that the average per year is £101.19, rather than the figure the hon. Gentleman cites. Is he aware of that research?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I have met the Schoolwear Association, which shared that research with me. The research I am referring to is from 1,000 parents who talked about the real costs of uniforms. The hon. Gentleman is right to cite some very good retailers and manufacturers out there that are providing good-quality manufactured goods. This Bill is not about penalising them—far from it.
Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) about the cost of uniform, the £340 in the research is not just for the uniform. It is also for shoes, bags and other things. The cost of the branded items, according to the research, was only £100 and they normally last for two years, so the actual cost of the branded items is more like £50 a year. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that point?
The cost, of course, varies and the uniform is the uniform. If a school says a cap, a coat, a bag, a tie—all branded—are needed, some children will definitely feel left out if their parents do not buy those things, and families will struggle. It is a story I have heard numerous times from my constituents, and I know it is a national issue. Members across the Chamber will know of stories of hard-pressed families in their local communities. One of the most concerning things that the researchers found—I am sure we have heard these stories across this Chamber—was that too many parents choose a school based on the cost of the uniform. The Children’s Society has estimated that this has affected 500,000 children, and I hope we can all agree that parents should never be put in that position.
I thank my hon. Friend for introducing this important Bill. Dozens of constituents have told me how the high price of uniforms leads parents to cut back on food, how kids get detention for not having the right items and how that leads to feelings of shame and embarrassment. Does my hon. Friend agree that in the sixth richest country in the world, parents should not have to cut back on basics to meet the needs of uniforms for their kids?
I wholeheartedly agree. My hon. Friend makes a strong point.
Can we just be clear that this Bill will not affect the ability of schools to enforce school uniform policy?
That is not the intention of the Bill.
I am not the first MP to campaign on this issue, and I must give credit to the sponsors of the Bill from across the Chamber. I also give a nod to the former MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field and, indeed my hon. Friend the current Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), who is campaigning alongside me. I also want to give a nod to the former MP for Peterborough, Lisa Forbes. In her brief time in Parliament, she was a champion of this issue, while highlighting the unfair demise of the school uniform grant—a fact recognised by our shadow Secretary of State for Education, my good friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who continues to press the Government every step of the way.
This Bill is not about the school uniform grant or extending the provision for projects such as breakfast clubs. It is part of our legislative landscape and should not be viewed in isolation to those campaigns. Alongside others in this House, I will continue to press the Government on these matters.
My Bill will require the Secretary of State for Education to produce new guidance that would make it a legal requirement for schools and their governing bodies to make affordability the top priority when setting uniform policies. In 2013, the Department for Education produced good non-statutory guidance, but there lies the problem. While some schools progressively responded to it, others have unfortunately chosen to ignore it. This Bill gives teeth to those good intentions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his choice of this issue and the progress he has made with it. Does he agree that it would be very helpful if the guidance that he is arguing for included a cap on the cost of the uniform specified within the guidance?
That is not the intention of this Bill. I am sure that some of this will be explored in Committee stage, if the Bill gets there.
The Bill also intends to break down monopolies with single suppliers, which, at times, is based on a historical nudge and wink. Fair and transparent tendering and increased competition will help to drive down prices for hard-pressed families, while rewarding good retailers and manufacturers.
I just want to take a step back for a minute. What does the hon. Gentleman think about the inclusion of PE kits, DT kits and things such as that? Much of the time, what a school specifies to parents is not just about the blazer, the shirt and the shoes, but about the other things as well. How does he think that that could be dealt with in this Bill, or does he think that we need to go wider still? May I also commend him for bringing this absolutely fantastic initiative before the House today?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention and indeed for his support. This Bill does cover the broad scope, as did the 2013 guidelines, so yes to his question.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he accept that one aspect of the cost of school uniforms is the value added tax, which is imposed on secondary school uniforms in particular? Does he agree that, now we are leaving the European Union, it is time for the Government to put their avowed intent into practice by removing VAT on school uniforms?
I thank the hon. Member for that question. I cannot quite believe this, but I am actually going to agree with him. As a remainer, yes, I really think that people should take control of this issue; and, yes, this is an opportunity which, of course, the manufacturers and retailers have lobbied for over a number of years. However, although I agree wholeheartedly that that should be an opportunity, it is beyond the scope of this Bill.
The requirement by some schools for a branded logo on everything needs to be curtailed, to allow parents the choice of where to buy more items of their uniforms from a wide range of competitive retailers, including from supermarkets and low-cost retailers. I am not against schools having their own identity, far from it, but why not limit the number of branded items to a maximum of two, or have a badge that can be sewn on to a generic shirt or blazer? This Bill is about being fair while being smart, and making a real difference to families who are struggling.
The past three Governments have publicly stated that they intend to legislate on this matter—most recently in 2019, prior to the general election, when the Secretary of State responded positively to the Sunday People campaign—but legislation has been noticeable by its absence in the most recent Queen’s Speech, and in every other one since 2015. After a number of meetings over the past few weeks, I have gained an encouraging amount of cross-party support, including from the Minister and his team, and I sincerely thank them for that.
In conclusion, this Bill is constructed in such a way that it will allow for a swift, effective passage through Parliament, and it has Government support. I look forward to reassurance from the Minister on how parents and schools will be engaged on the content of the guidance as part of this process. Most importantly, today, parliamentarians can help many families in their own constituencies and beyond by getting this done. They should do the right thing by making sure that school uniforms are affordable for all.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on introducing this Bill. Like many hon. Members, I have received a considerable number of emails from constituents concerned about the unacceptably high cost of uniforms. It is perhaps unfortunate that many of these were part of a concerted mass email campaign that was somewhat sensationalist and inaccurate in nature, and did not in fact consider the specific situation in my constituency, let alone at individual schools in the Aylesbury area. That said, let me be very clear that I entirely support the proposal in the Bill that the Secretary of State should issue statutory guidance on the costs aspects of school uniforms.
It is vital that children should be able to attend school to focus on improving their life chances and not to experience any form of bullying, harassment or stress because of the clothes that they wear. In fact, the principle of a school uniform can be a great leveller. It enables children to form a joint identity, a common bond, in much the way that fans of a football team enjoy wearing replica kits to matches. Many children enjoy wearing their uniform, too. Only yesterday, I spent time with pupils from two primary schools in my constituency—William Harding School and St Edward’s Junior School—visiting the Houses of Parliament. They told me that wearing uniform stops children being judged, and that it is easier to afford than many other clothes. They liked the way that a uniform helped to form a common bond and, ever wise as young children are, they pointed out to me that it would help to identify them if they got lost during their tour of the House, which did make me wonder whether we new MPs might have benefited from a uniform in our first few weeks here.
The advantages and benefits of school uniforms do not, however, mean that head teachers or governing bodies should be able to use them as a covert means to restrict admission. To insist on one particular supplier with unnecessarily high costs is simply not acceptable. Schools must be able to justify their uniform policies. The fact that this Bill puts guidance of cost of uniforms on a statutory basis is for the good. It is entirely in line with the Government’s commitments, and I commend the hon. Member for introducing it.
The main point that I want to make today is that many suppliers of school uniforms are responsible businesses. Indeed, a competitively priced school uniform can be considerably cheaper than buying ordinary clothes, especially those from famous fashion or sports brands. I speak from personal experience, which is similar to that of the hon. Member. My own school in the ’80s did not have a formal uniform, and the result was often close to a catwalk competition—a competition that I never won.
In my own constituency, the company Print Lab supplies 22 schools. Its secondary school branded uniform consists of blazer, jumper, tie, PE top, outdoor PE top, shorts and socks, for which the total cost is £107.50, and typically lasts for between one and two years. The primary branded uniform of four sweatshirts or cardigans, four polo shirts, the PE equipment and the bags costs £105.50. That works out at about 55p per day, so it is possible to do it at a competitive price.
That company is an example of the entrepreneurial spirit that we need to foster in our country. It was founded by Ian Goodchild in his mum’s garage on Bedgrove in Aylesbury in 2012 and has grown over the past seven years so that it now employs up to 11 people at peak times. That company helps out the schools that it supplies to, sometimes by providing kit for sports teams and sometimes by providing free uniform for the least well-off. What is more, it is a firm that welcomes competition. Indeed, it outsells both Marks & Spencer and John Lewis at the schools where they are also approved suppliers.
In short, it is a British small business that is providing a competitively priced product, employing local people and helping the community.
There are many other such firms around the country, so let us use this Bill to recognise their contribution to the economy and to our schools. Let these firms set the example of how uniforms can bring real benefits to schools, but let this Bill also serve to stop schools insisting on a particular supplier and uniforms at inflated prices that provide a barrier to any pupil, and to demonstrate to the unscrupulous, the greedy and the irresponsible that there is no place for them in our education system.
It is a pleasure to speak in today’s debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on bringing forward this Bill.
I grew up in a family shop that also sold school uniforms for local schools in Hounslow. Interestingly, I remember how as a child the relationship that my parents had with other parents was important as was the relationship that they had with the local schools.
This Bill requires the Government to make new statutory guidance for all schools on the costs aspect of school uniforms, and it is right to ensure that schools give priority to the consideration of cost and affordability when setting and implementing school uniform policy. The Bill is rightly pro-uniform, because uniform acts as an equaliser between pupils, and many charities also support the campaign.
In preparing for the debate, I conducted a short survey of my schools, local suppliers and parents. I am also grateful to Prashant at School Bells, a local company providing uniforms for many local schools, for his input.
The Bill seeks to make school uniforms more affordable for parents, and I thank the Children’s Society for its work, although its research on costs is worrying. It is also important to note that costs show great variation across the country. The schools I consulted suggested that the cost of their uniforms was considerably lower than the average, but an average is an average, and it shows high rates being charged across the country. We have to have a much more level playing field.
Schools sometimes foot the bill for school uniforms. A few years ago, I undertook some research covered by The Guardian. Schools were hiding the fact that parents could not afford the school uniform and—from the experience of shops in my constituency—telling the supplier to cover the cost for them, allowing the parents to have the uniforms with the school paying later. In recent years, that has got worse, as family incomes have been squeezed. That is another example of the hidden costs and price of austerity.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the Children’s Society research that has just been published? It shows that one in five families on lower incomes are struggling to pay for school uniforms. Given that the average cost is about £300 a year, that means they are cutting back on other things—[Interruption.] According to the research.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I, too, wanted to look at the detail of the costs, so when I did the research in my local schools, I asked about the individual items included. The costs were considerably lower than the full average coming through the Children’s Society, but I am sure that as the debate goes on, the details of how that was calculated will be looked at closely. The point my hon. Friend makes, however, about one in five families struggling, is important. There is also variation across the country. We cannot allow that to be hidden.
Local authorities are another part of the picture. Sometimes they help in cases of hardship, but in Hounslow the grant has been cut from £120 to £60, which is not enough to cover the whole cost of a school uniform, even where it is cheaper. That is another example of the impact of austerity and its effect on children in our society collectively. The Bill will place a duty on the Secretary of State, as we have discussed.
In Feltham and Heston, almost 5,000 households depend on universal credit and have child dependants, with about 66% of them being lone parents. It is not surprising, therefore, when we look at the economics being dealt with by families, that thousands of parents are struggling to make ends meet. Anything we can do to reduce the costs of purchasing school uniforms for their children will be a positive step. For any parent to have to cut back on food or other basic essentials in order to afford school uniform—it happens at particular times of the year—is completely unacceptable.
I welcome the Bill. I look forward to the consultation on how to implement the guidance to get the long-term answer to this, with the input of schools, parents and providers.
Over the past few weeks, I have been contacted by many constituents. At first glance, the Bill seems uncontroversial, asking the important question of how we move forward. I want to make a few points for consideration on that. The first is about the quality and durability of school uniforms. That has to be considered because of the way uniforms might be supplied. None of us wants to see a situation in which school uniforms are produced cheaply, imported and sold in local supermarkets. We want to see a different way, in which durability and quality are also considered, with guidance on that as well.
Secondly, the single supplier arrangements have been much discussed. The Bill does not rule those out, but understanding in more detail whether schools should be allowed to have single suppliers is important. The analysis is mixed on the use of single supplier contracts and whether they drive up prices for parents. Some analysis and examples show that the contracts can add value, as long as robust tendering processes are in place. A number of the schools that came back to me have single supplier relationships which, when they run well, can provide better for families because they ensure better year-round availability of products for all. Single suppliers also tend to overstock, allowing for tailored affordability and other relationships with the school in the interests of parents.
Stevensons, a retailer based in Harpenden, the Hertfordshire area and elsewhere, does precisely what the hon. Lady is talking about, often through single supplier contracts. Last year, it also gave £30,000-worth of uniform to disadvantaged parents. Is that not the sort of thing that the Government should also be championing?
What is important is that schools’ and parents’ voices are heard. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, however, and I will come on to that in my remarks. We do not want unintended consequences: over the course of time, we might end up with less quality and less of a relationship—making school uniforms fit well and such things are all part of the relationship between the school, parents and providers, which can be important.
Thirdly, local suppliers invest heavily in stock, as has been said, and as part of their contract tend to overstock through the year, whereas supermarkets might only have a small amount of stock, prioritising it in the holidays. However, when kids change schools during the school year, for example, the risk is a delay with the school uniform. I have asked schools and suppliers whether they experience delays with uniforms and how quickly a parent can get a new uniform if one is damaged or a child moves school. That flexibility is important, so that parents do not have to wait and children are not told they cannot attend school because they are struggling to get the school uniform they need to be alongside their fellow pupils.
What the supplier relationship can provide is interesting, because we do not want a situation in which children are left unable to replace a damaged or torn uniform. I do not want to see a move towards purchasing uniforms from anonymous supermarkets. A worry—which, interestingly, has come up in other circumstances, such as the coronavirus crisis—is that different providers might have different colours and slight variations in the school uniforms, which signifies where a child has bought the uniform from, and that can let inequality in through the back door.
My fourth point is about community. Buying a school uniform for a child is personal. It might be a big milestone in that child’s life. The relationships between local—often family—businesses and the schools can be important to help and support parents and their children through the big milestones of starting primary and secondary school. Important to those relationships, and where they work well, are the annual review meetings with schools, to ensure that any concerns or issues are raised, that schools and governing bodies have power in those relationships, and that standards are maintained as per the school’s requirements. Standards need to be acceptable and proportionate, which is one of the important things that the Bill will introduce into the debate.
Overall, the Bill is welcome, and guidance on school uniform costs being placed on a statutory footing will be an important contribution to how we deal with the issue in the long term. As the Bill progresses and the guidance is developed, I am sure that the Government will consult as widely as possibly with school uniform suppliers, schools and parents. Research needs to be kept up to date, and school uniforms must be of the quality we want for our children in our local schools, but at a price that they can afford. Affordability and the impact on families is a prime policy consideration.
It is interesting, and in some ways welcome, to have a proposal before the House that attracts cross-party support, but also obliges us to consider it and debate it carefully. The hon. Members for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) have talked in the House about schoolwear costs—the latter quite extensively—as have numerous Conservative Members, and Ministers. Some of my comments, however, will be on other aspects of schoolwear, and approaches other than those that hon. Members suggested in other debates. I want to be unambiguously clear, though, that value is important, and that there are parents and carers for whom the cost of schoolwear is a very serious issue, even when we allow for the costs of a school not having a uniform, and cost pressures of every other kind. I take that issue as seriously for my constituents as I am sure Members in every part of the House do for theirs.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) for her comments. She made very sensible points about the special nature of the sector, and about stock, unintended consequences and quality, which I shall expand on a little. I suppose that one of the benefits of these sorts of debates is the measure of agreement; it allows us to achieve consensus, but also to draw out points that need to be made.
I have brief comments on the nature of the proposal, but will focus more on the pragmatic and practical. Views on school uniform—how traditional or otherwise it should be, and its role in promoting standards in education—vary. On the issue of cost, the schoolwear sector—retail and wholesale—deserves a fair hearing. Marge Simpson once said that she could not afford to shop at a store that had a philosophy. I wonder whether, for some, that feeling extends to schoolwear suppliers. In so far as the sector has a philosophy, I have found it very positive. Much of it relates to value. The Schoolwear Shop in my constituency of Northampton South certainly tries hard to keep costs down, but there are examples that illustrate why guidance must allow for differentiation between absolute cost and value for money. The team at David Luke Ltd of Manchester, for instance, led by Kathryn Shuttleworth and Mark Woolgar, have developed schoolwear that is not only low cost but made from recycled materials. That is a move away from fast fashion and waste, but also enhances the hard-wearing nature of the clothes they sell.
The approach of seeking decent-quality, and thus longer-lasting, clothing, as well as interesting and innovative ways of supporting parents on lower incomes, is also taken by Jan Richardson and her team at Total Clothing in Peterborough. I have seen that approach taken by Georgina Bradley at Sussex Uniforms as well. Someone who has to buy three pairs of trousers for £10 each, instead of one pair for £25 that lasts three times as long, is not saving any money.
My encounters with business people in this sector, and messages and information from others, show me that the sector cares about the schools and the parents whom they serve, and understands the price pressures on many of them. The fact that it seeks to resolve those issues through durability and ethical sourcing shows that there is more to value than the sticker price, and that is something to which schools, parents and the Department for Education should have regard. Tendering for sole supply arrangements can keep prices on the cost and value matrix down, and I welcome the place for that idea in the guidance, and believe that it addresses many of hon. Members’ concerns. I very much hope that when the guidance goes back out to consultation, the schoolwear sector, and especially its best exemplars, get a full opportunity to contribute and explain the special business model that the sector requires, which we have heard a little about. I hope we also hear from charities and campaign groups of various kinds.
The need for a balanced assessment is underlined by the hugely detailed, and—I would assert, reverting back to my time in academia—peer reviewable work that the Schoolwear Association has done on the true cost of uniform, which acts as a corrective to work done by others. We have heard that the average basket price for branded garments—uniform and sportswear—for a child starting secondary school is £101.19, and that the cost is £35 to £40 a year thereafter.
We have all been children, and many of us have school-age children; I do. Opinions in the House and the real world will diverge based on personal, family and constituents’ experiences. There are families where someone did not go to a good school that they would have thrived in, because it was thought that they could not afford the uniform. Alternatively, there are families who found having a school with a proper uniform a great social leveller; it gave them freedom from the peer pressure of, “Your jacket’s from the supermarket, but mine’s Gucci.” That relates to the PE point. If requirements are too generic, all those expensive brand labels that the Bill’s promoter, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, spoke about will return to schools. That makes the case for having lower-cost items that are branded by the school, rather than by Nike, Adidas or someone else at unbelievable cost, which would put pressure on those on low incomes to keep up with the Joneses.
That brings to mind a childhood memory of my mum telling me that we could not have the Dunlop Green Flash; we would have to get the £3 bargain plimsolls. I dreaded going to school the next morning, and the embarassment of doing PE in those crummy plimsolls. I want to ensure—this is the hon. Gentleman’s thinking, too—that the principle of more affordable PE kit and sportswear is enshrined not just in the Bill, but in the guidance, so that the young people of Ilford South who aspire to be sporting heroes do not have to worry about whether they can afford to be the next Ravi Bopara or Nasser Hussain.
The hon. Gentleman provides a good illustration of how personal experience informs rather than inflames the debate. His point also illustrates the importance of local areas and schools having a measure of control and responsibility. That is not always delivered by an attitude of, “The man in Whitehall knows best.” There is space for guidance—that is the purpose of our discussion today—but guidance and over-prescription in a country the size of ours, with the number of schools we have, would be unwelcome.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of schools take a very responsible approach when designating their school uniform? We might be looking at a relatively small number of exceptions when we talk about more expensive uniforms.
What my hon. Friend says is true in the overwhelming majority of cases. It is interesting; I have found from my meetings with larger schoolwear suppliers, and the intermediate businesses that provide wholesale stock of those garments to a local area, that some of them have prevailed on schools to take a more measured and responsible approach. It is a tribute to people in the sector that although they could say, “Yes, you should absolutely have a cerise lining and charge £250,” they have said that they do not think that is a very responsible approach. People may respond, “Oh, the sector would say that, wouldn’t it? It’s just in it to gouge everybody.” That is not, I hope, something that we would necessarily say about other sectors, such as the defence sector or the theatre. This sector, being so close to the people it serves and so embedded in the communities it serves, overall does take its responsibilities particularly seriously.
Nobody suggests that a uniform makes or breaks a school, but if a school is seeking to change and drive up standards—possibly in response to not very satisfactory Ofsted results, or in response to parent pressure to step up their game—a uniform makes the statement that it is on a mission to do that. Also, schools with a much longer tradition of success that they want to keep up encourage pride in their uniform—pride in their brand, and in what they have achieved for the young people that they serve. Uniform has an important role to play there.
I went to a state school with a comprehensive intake, Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne in Derbyshire. I owe it so much that I mentioned it in my maiden speech. It has a traditional uniform, including right through the sixth form. That is not why it is a good school, but it plays its part.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I also went to Queen Elizabeth’s School, but in Barnet. We had a traditional uniform, and we had houses. There were different uniforms for those in different houses. Does he agree that these sorts of things raise the ethos of a school, and therefore raise aspiration, and deliver better outcomes in the long run?
That is absolutely true. I do not want to play school status bingo, but that does sound very grand because all we had for a house was a little plastic or metal badge—that was it.
We had a similar thing: little yellow or green badges that we could stick on our uniform. The guidance illustrates this. A school in Cumbria allowed students to put their house logos on their jumpers, but they were stitched on, so they could be taken off, with the jumper given to a brother or sister, a relative or whatever. Uniform can therefore be branded with a school motto or house logo without it costing parents too much.
It can. I put a big question mark next to this section of my speech in case it instigated a wide range of people’s recollections of various kinds. However, I have been pleased to hear those from Members. I do want to mention Duston School in my constituency, led by the no-nonsense head, Sam Strickland.
An aversion to philosophy and a preference for pragmatism has overall served this country well, in contrast to some others, right back to the glorious revolution of 1688. That aversion is echoed in Lord Palmerston’s statement in Parliament in 1864:
“We cannot go on adding to the statute book ad infinitum.”
Lord Palmerston was not necessarily prescient there, considering the amount of statute that has been passed since. But it in no way detracts from the concerns of Members across the House on a whole range of issues, including this one, not to wonder sometimes whether regulation is always the answer and whether we benefit from being what groups as diverse as The Economist, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Cities and the Institute for Public Policy Research regard as the most centralised state in the western world. That is a question for Government—especially a Conservative Government with a healthy majority—to ponder henceforth.
However, with this legislation, we are where we are. To seek comfort, I ask the Minister to address three matters. First, will the schoolwear sector be fully consulted and have its role respected as guidance goes out for consultation? Secondly, will sole-supplier arrangements be allowed when there has been tendering? Thirdly, will the key consideration be value for money? In tendering, quality of product can be a consideration as a better way often of saving parents money than the pure sticker price for a fast-fashion, not ethically sourced poor product that may wear out quickly.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for using his good fortune in the private Member’s Bill ballot to bring forward this critical Bill, which I am sure is welcomed by parents and carers across the country. Many hon. Friends have mentioned this. I still remember that sense of pride many years ago when I first put on my primary school uniform and that sense of belonging to a team. I was in the red team, which made sure that I would join the Labour party later in life.
I am a parent of two young children. When my eldest daughter started reception in September, I remember the sense of pride when we put on her school uniform, yet in the back of my head I could hear my husband going, “How much did that cost?” School uniforms are expensive for a number of families in Vauxhall and across the country. As parents and carers from disadvantaged and lower-income households struggle, these costs are really high; they are struggling from pay cheque to pay cheque. That is the reality.
We need action on lower costs for school uniforms and to provide flexibility for many families who are struggling to get by. That is why I am pleased to support the Bill, which would give the Government the power to set guidance once and for all about the cost of school uniform for parents and prevent the spiralling costs they are seeing up and down the country. The impact of those costs can be severe, with one in six families having to cut back on basic food essentials and one in eight getting into debt just to pay for school uniforms. That should not be happening. When parents and carers cannot afford these costs, their children also face the brunt of it, as we have heard, with some schools imposing draconian school discipline and some kids actually being sent home. The Children’s Society did a survey and reported the experience of a child who was sent home just for wearing the wrong school uniform. I am therefore glad that the Government are accepting the Bill today, but its failure or success will come from the strength of the guidance issued by the Government. I am therefore happy to see the Minister is here listening to all our contributions.
I urge the Government to use guidance to limit the amount of branded items that are strictly necessary. If a school feels that use of its logo is necessary—I think it does provide a sense of emphasis—and is right, it must be sure that parents and carers can use cost-saving measures such as self-attachment without fear of their child being excluded or reprimanded.
I think all parents of school-age children have been slightly frustrated by the rate at which their children tend to grow out of school uniforms, long before those uniforms wear out—invariably, children have a growth spurt just after they have been bought a new uniform. Many schools have introduced second-hand uniform shops. Does the hon. Lady think that that should be encouraged and made best practice in all schools?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. As the eldest of three girls, I can guarantee that my mum used to recycle all our school uniforms. To the horror of my immediate sister, when she started secondary school, she had to wear my blazer. That blazer was passed down again when my cousin started at the same school. Those initiatives are excellent to help families who are struggling.
My hon. Friend has reminded me that I was the fourth of four girls, all at the same school. I did not have a single piece of new school uniform; I had three hand-me-downs.
Thankfully, I have a son and a daughter, so there will not be any passing down. If I could, I would.
As the sister of an older brother, I assure my hon. Friend that hand-me-downs happened and I can wear a navy blue jumper as well as any boy.
That highlights the problem for a number of parents and carers right across the country. If we pass the Bill, its measures will bring costs down significantly for a number of parents and carers across the country. However, even if it passes, the hard reality is that school uniforms will still be an expense that some of our poorest in society fail to afford. While there is support for poor families, it is at the behest of local authorities—which have also seen their budgets cut in the last 10 years—and how much support they can offer.
The proponents of school uniforms argue that they create a level playing field for children from all backgrounds and drive down inequality, but how can that be the case when parents and carers are having to fork out hundreds of pounds to pay for uniforms and when support for poorer families is based on a postcode lottery? The Bill is not to question the rights and wrongs of school uniform—I think we all agree with that—but it gives the Government the potential to create a genuine level playing field for pupils up and down the country and ensure that our children continue to learn.
It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate about guidance on and costs of school uniforms. We have all been through school and had the experience of looking forward to buying school uniform, or our parents buying it. Hon. Members have rightly highlighted how, when we go to the shop to get the blazers and sports kit, it really sets that sense of transition from primary school to secondary school, which is a really important stage in life, for the vast majority who go to schools with these uniforms.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi). I have three brothers so I was in a similar position on hand-me-downs. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), in his speech, made an excellent contribution. The reassurance that the Bill is not about getting rid of school uniforms is so important, because they hold an important place in our society. It is not just the uniform—the tie and the badge—that is important; on sports day and in sporting competition between different schools, they allow people readily to see their team and who they are supporting. Uniform lends itself to that ethos and identity within a school.
It is far cheaper to have a school uniform, because it avoids that competitive catwalk approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) highlighted what can happen if a school’s sports kit is not also part of the school uniform; by attempting to reduce the overall cost of the uniform, schools can actually allow other areas of school life to become dominated by cool kit, style and fast fashion. School uniform is important in many different ways.
Perhaps this is a minor point, but children will only appreciate a mufti day at school if they have to wear a school uniform the rest of the time. However, there is a concern that non-uniform days come a little too frequently now and happen for too many different reasons. Perhaps there should be a reduction in such days, because it is now on these occasions that competition over clothing comes out, undermining the value behind having a school uniform.
Does my hon. Friend agree that schools deciding to have dress-up days can cause additional pressures for families, who have to keep finding different outfits for their children?
That is a very good point. Fortunately, I was at school before it became the fashion to have these themed days—for World Book Day or other occasions—for which parents have to go out and spend money on outfits. I am glad that I missed all that, and having to dress up as Harry Potter or anyone else is not something I would ever have looked forward to when I was at school.
It is quite right that we emphasise the value in good-quality school uniform. This ought not just to be about the cheapest price. A lot of small shops provide good-quality school uniforms. We ought to be aware of the concern that in many towns around the country there might not even be a question of which school uniform the children are wearing, because it will be the cheapest option—from whichever supermarket is in that town. Supermarkets provide a valuable space for affordable clothing, but we need to be careful that they do not push out the small businesses on our high streets by doing so.
It is important for schoolchildren to wear a uniform because they may end up wearing one when they leave school, as people in so many walks of life wear uniforms. Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr Speaker himself, and so many others around this Chamber and around Parliament wear a uniform. The police and nurses wear uniforms. Arguably, as is evident on the Benches around me, many male Members of Parliament dress in quite a standard way. Schoolchildren are likely to wear a uniform of one sort or another throughout their working lives, so they may as well get used to it early on.
School visits are one of the most interesting parts of any Member of Parliament’s life, whether that visit is from a secondary or a primary school. We often do the fearsome or dreaded Q&A, where there can be a range of questions—from “What is your favourite colour?”, which I deal with quite well, to “What are the relative merits or demerits of the party leaders?”, which is a far more involved question. It is sometimes good to ask the kids questions as well, and to get them to participate in democracy, especially given the importance of referendums.
In these sessions the children do ask, “Why do we have to wear a school uniform?” and the arguments can be set out as to why it is so important that they do. But I asked the children of St Bartholomew’s Church of England Primary School in Westhoughton to vote on whether their teachers and headteacher should wear a school uniform as well, and that question was agreed to not 52% to 48%, but with unanimity within the classroom. So many schools have school councils now, and I think that teachers should respect the children and democracy; perhaps we should be expanding this Bill. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Weaver Vale wants to seek to expand the remit of his legislation, but maybe we should be asking whether teachers should wear school uniforms as well.
It is a pleasure to speak in favour of this Bill, promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), who has truly identified a real issue faced by millions of families across the country. The Bill takes the necessary steps required to alleviate the problem.
The cost of a uniform can vary dramatically across a community and across the country, with the only uniformity being that the relatively cheapest uniform is still extremely expensive. The school uniform serves a wide range of important functions. It provides a uniformity for what young people wear to school, regardless of their family’s financial situation. A young person cannot be made fun of because their family cannot afford the most up-to-date clothes, for example. This uniformity, which was in part designed to help some of the poorest in our society, is in fact now placing an undue cost on families.
In my constituency alone, the cost of a branded blazer is between £31 and £37, a tie is £6.50 and a PE top is £15. The average cost of a secondary school uniform is £340. In its 2020 update, the Children’s Society has announced that this cost is now even higher, with costs rising to £361. Some 43% of parents said that the cost of school uniform alone had affected their families in some way, and one in 10 families reported getting into debt trying to pay for uniform costs. We also need to bear in mind that this is a yearly, and sometimes twice yearly, cost. Some Members in this Chamber may hear “£37 for a blazer” and think, “That’s not too bad”, but as young people grow their uniform often needs replacing yearly and sometimes twice a year, so these figures become an annual cost. This leads to poorer families being unable to replace worn out or outgrown school uniforms, which leads to stigmatisation and bullying, meaning that uniforms are failing to meet their purpose of providing a baseline for all.
I know that we cannot do away with the cost of uniforms altogether, and I welcome the work that Governments have done on this matter previously. The Government’s advisory guidance, for example, does emphasise the importance of cost considerations. However, as we have heard from the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), and my hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), who have made good contributions, this guidance is not enough and is seven years out of date. It also lacks the teeth required to make schools lower the cost of uniforms, although I am aware that many schools have schemes to help.
This Bill is so important because it will empower the Government to take the statutory steps necessary to alleviate the financial burden being placed on families across the county. The Government have already pledged to make their guidance statutory, as stated in in the 2015 better markets plan. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale has helpfully drawn up the Bill up for the Government, and I can see no reason why they would wish to oppose it, given that it is in line with their own stated aims and is admirably written. By passing this Bill into law, the Government can take the necessary steps to limit the amount of items that must be branded. It is often this branding that increases the cost of uniforms, as families are forced to purchase from a single provider.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that reducing the range of branded school uniform items would enable—and perhaps, to some extent, encourage —a pathway for people to have more branded items that are not branded by the school, which would slightly undermine the concerns about bullying and a lack of cohesive identity?
I have heard the hon. Gentleman, but the Bill means that the Government would have to take the necessary steps to limit the amount of school uniform that must be branded.
The Government could also use the powers contained in the Bill to ensure that schools must have a fair and open tendering process at the end of each financial year, which would increase competitiveness and help drive down costs, and the savings could then be passed on to families.
One such family is Paula Hay’s. Paula has four children. Her youngest is 14 and still at school. Over the years the family have struggled to pay for uniforms, especially when the three older boys were all at secondary school at the same time. Paula said:
“Having to buy three sets of everything was expensive and I would have to rely on my parents to help out. If they had not covered the costs of things like shoes and trainers, I am not sure how we would have managed it.”
Paula’s daughter is currently in year 9. At the start of the current school year her school changed its uniform, which meant Paula had to buy everything new again. She said:
“I bought two skirts and a blazer for £89, and then we had to add a tie and a few bits for the PE kits. It was well over £100 on those items. Then there were additional shirts, jumpers and tights—it all adds up. Many of the schools use that same shop, which means you don’t have a choice and have to buy the more expensive items. It’s not fair to those from low-income families.”
This Bill can and will, if utilised effectively by the Government, make a real difference for families like the Hays. That is why I commend the Bill to the House and call on Back Benchers and Front Benchers to support it through all the stages required to make it law.
May I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for introducing this private Member’s Bill? As a former teacher, I understand the impact that the high cost of school uniforms can have on parents.
I would like to start by stressing the importance of school uniform, of which I am an ardent supporter. I recently visited two of the top-performing schools in my constituency: the first is a brand-new through school, Armfield Academy; and just last week I welcomed my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to St George’s School. The headteachers of both schools explained that the introduction of a zero-tolerance policy on school uniform had had a profound impact on school standards and results. When I spoke to some of the brilliant pupils at those schools, they told me how proud they were to wear their uniform. They said it gives them a sense of belonging and community, and that it helps them get into the correct mindset for learning. It also puts all pupils on a level playing field, where their personality, achievements and attitude make them stand out, not the cost of their clothes.
I also understand the stress that having no school uniform can bring to parents and children. A single non-uniform day a year can be a cause of concern for some. Parents will worry about sending their children to school if they have not bought the latest fashionable brands—a point articulated by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) a few moments ago. Bullying can seriously impact children’s development, and many fear what their peers will say on a non-uniform day. A standard uniform can alleviate these worries and allow children to focus on what is important: their education.
No doubt many parents in my hon. Friend’s constituency take a sensible and pragmatic approach to school uniforms, as indeed did my own parents. I had a total of two blazers during my time at secondary school—I remember that on my first day the sleeves went past the tips of my fingers. It is really important that people make sensible, pragmatic choices about school uniform, and that schools support families in need to ensure that they can have the appropriate wear.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I am sure that all Members will have heard the phrase, “You’ll grow into it.” I suppose many parents hope that their child will not grow out of it.
As a primary school teacher, it never ceased to amaze me how hard-wearing school uniforms can be, when I would see children knee-slide across the hall at the school disco, or rolling around in the playground. I believe that there should be simplicity and longevity in school uniforms, to make the cost to parents lower than that of personal clothes.
However, the rise of branded school uniforms and the requirement to have a vast number of items, including branded PE kits, separate GCSE clothes and bespoke skirts, is making school uniforms unaffordable for many. I do not believe that parents should have to decide where to send their children to school based on which has the least number of bespoke garments, many of which may never be worn. Branded items can cost multiple times the non-branded equivalent, and using sole suppliers only exacerbates the problem.
Uniform costs can enter hundreds of pounds as children outgrow clothes and shoes. My constituency of Blackpool South unfortunately has some of the most deprived wards in the country. It is known that material deprivation can have a serious impact on school attainment. Despite being a big supporter of the previously mentioned zero-tolerance policy, it is often the children of low-income families who fall foul of the rules, and they can miss out on crucial learning as a result. I hope that this change in legislation will help those parents trying to do the right thing to send their children to school with the necessary tools to succeed.
I welcome the Government’s support for the Bill, and their commitment to levelling up per-pupil funding across the entire country. They have a clear commitment to ensure that all children receive a first-class education, whatever their background and wherever they live. Schools have a responsibility to ensure that the costs to parents are reasonable, and it is right that the Bill will make that statutory.
I have been inundated with requests from constituents asking me to support this important Bill, so I am delighted to be in the Chamber today, and indeed to be a sponsor of the Bill, which has been introduced by my good friend the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). I hope that Members on both sides of the House will come together to make a real difference on a matter that affects so many parents and students.
Despite my infancy in this place, I already feel that, with all the rhetorical back-and-forth, the bluster, the hyperbole and so forth, we can sometimes lose track of the real issues that affect the day-to-day lives of our constituents. In our communities across the land, whether they voted blue or red, too many working and non-working parents, and even grandparents, are worried about the cost of school uniforms. I acknowledge that we have heard different views today on the costs of school uniforms, but the Children’s Society, as my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale pointed out, has put the cost at more than £300 a year, meaning that an estimated 1 million parents have to cut back on food and other essentials to cover the cost.
Although I very much hope that the Bill will proceed today, we must remind ourselves that we are not in the business of gesture politics and warm words, so any new guidance offered to schools must tangibly and materially improve the situation for parents and pupils. I am sure that hon. Members will make similar points—indeed, others already have—but it is important that we get this right while we have the opportunity to do so. Any new guidance must look seriously at monopolisation within the sector. Monopolisation by suppliers is increasing costs, to the extent that it is harming the pockets of parents, and in its very nature it is exclusionary. Schools should comply with the guidance, and the guidance should address the exclusivity arrangements in the sector. I am certain that the best way to ensure that this takes place is to put in place mechanisms to see that the guidance is enforced. Schools should have to demonstrate clearly that a tendering process has been undertaken if using a single supplier, for example, which I am sure can be achieved in ways that need not be very bureaucratic.
When consulting with stakeholders and before introducing new guidance, the Government and the Department for Education must put parents at the heart of the consultation process. Schools must be required to reach out to parents who may not naturally be forthcoming about their concerns at the cost of their child’s school uniform. Assumptions and assertions by school leaders will only take us so far. As with tendering, we should be asking schools to demonstrate clearly that they have attempted to engage with parents, so that we, as political representatives, can continue to get a clear picture of the reality of forking out for uniforms. If done right, that will contribute significantly to guidance that is comprehensive and will universally improve the lot of our children.
To sum up, I believe—as pretty much all in the House do—in the principle of school uniforms. The benefits are many and have been reiterated in this place today. We have a great equaliser in the school uniform. However, we should not be creating inequalities elsewhere. As I said at the start of my speech, let us get on with it, but let us do it right and make a real difference.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on promoting the Bill. I am pleased that the Government are supporting it, and I am happy to do so as well. I was a governor of schools for 10 years before coming into politics, and uniform issues weaved in and out of my time as a governor. Let me start by saying that I am a strong supporter of uniform and the role it can play in building identity and discipline, as well as the role it should play as a leveller for children of all different backgrounds. The Bill is necessary because uniform is not acting as the leveller it should be at the moment, and I want to touch on three aspects.
The first is the financial burden. As we have heard, the £340 figure is widely disputed, and that is the limitation of a survey of a small proportion of parents. On the other hand, some of the very low figures that have been sent my way do not seem to take account of the fact that children often need multiples of the same item. They also do not take account of the growth spurts or the obstructive activities that children can get up to at breaktime and lunchtime, which may mean that further items are needed during the course of the year.
Most studies, including the ones from the Department for Education, seem to indicate that there are parents for whom uniforms are a real financial burden, and who sometimes get into debt and have to give up essentials. Before I came to the Chamber, I received some information from the Competition and Markets Authority—I am sure other Members did as well—which said that this is one of the areas it receives most complaints about, which is an interesting point to note.
It is true that schools and local authorities offer support to families with the cost of uniform, and when I was a governor, we did the same, but as with any support offered to people experiencing poverty, the stigma of applying for it can mean that they do not do so, even when they are eligible. I remember, as a governor, that all the schools I was working with bent over backwards to get children who were eligible for free school meals to claim them, but whatever they did, families were uncomfortable doing so. We therefore need this statutory guidance, to ensure that everybody is getting the support they need.
The second aspect is attendance, which is fundamental to attainment. When I was a charity chief executive, I became familiar with other charities such as School-Home Support, which works on the relationship between schools and families, particularly trying to combat issues of truancy. At the heart of truancy were often issues of uniform—items of uniform that had been lost or that children had grown out of, and sometimes items of uniform that children were embarrassed to wear because they were dirty. Sometimes School-Home Support meant putting that uniform in a washing machine, which the family lacked, and fixing that issue fixed the attendance problem.
At the charity I ran before coming here, we placed young people—mostly those who were eligible for free school meals—with employers, and we often had to buy them the items they needed to feel comfortable in the workplace. Many of those young people now have successful careers in those companies, but if we had not bought them the original item they needed to feel comfortable going on their work placement, they would never have taken up that opportunity.
The third aspect is the way the schoolwear market operates. I believe in competition. I think that higher prices are not usually the result of too much competition, but rather too little competition. I have heard from schoolwear suppliers in my constituency about the issues they face in supplying schools with uniform. They feel that they can sometimes cut the cost to parents by 25%, while maintaining the same quality. Quality is important—it should not be like my occasional eBay purchases where I think I have got a bargain, and two weeks later I have to buy the same item from a more reputable source. Those suppliers feel that they can match the quality, and yet they are kept out because of exclusivity arrangements that schools have reached without going through a proper tendering process.
I have been pleasingly surprised by how many within the schoolwear industry welcome the Bill. They would like to see it enable a level playing field for them to compete on quality and price, so that their business can succeed in the way that I think we would all like them to succeed. I hope that, with these guidelines, we can enable businesses to operate on a level playing field, while protecting families who, for too long, have had to pay too much for uniform.
I congratulate my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), on his Bill. As we all know on the Opposition Benches, 10 years of austerity have had a major impact on the most vulnerable and plunged many into precarious financial positions. Liverpool, Riverside has some of the most deprived wards in the country, and many parents do not have the money to feed their kids, particularly during the summer holidays, never mind being able to find hundreds of pounds for branded uniforms. If this Government are serious about levelling up, they need to get this Bill done.
I am delighted to speak in the debate and to co-sponsor the Bill. When my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) asked me to support it, I quickly agreed for a number of reasons. The first is that he is a very decent fellow, and I enjoyed the time we spent as members of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. Secondly, I thought it was a very sensible Bill. Thirdly, he told me that the Whips were supporting it, which is always a bit of a help.
The Bill has a simple purpose. It is not about restricting the ability of schools and school governors to set a sensible branding policy for their school. It is about increasing the amount of competition, which it is right that we do. It is great to hear so many Labour Members speaking about the need to create more competition—they are absolutely right that that is what we need to do. We should guard at all costs, at any time, against monopolies, be it private sector monopolies or, even worse, public sector monopolies. When we think about the way we run many different things in this country, we have to try to prevent monopolies. Public sector monopolies are worse because there is nobody to hold them to account. If the Government own a monopoly, who can possibly hold that public sector monopoly to account?
It is right that we support the creation of more competition. Competition is the best way to drive up service and reduce costs, as I know from my own life. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have been in business for most of my life, and I still am. As we look to become more effective and do better in our marketplace, the thing that has made our business more competitive has been when new competition has entered the market and started to put pressure on our business. At that point, we look at our business model, try to reduce costs in order to gain market share, and try to drive up our service. It is fundamentally right that we try to engender more competition in every single marketplace. Competition is not just a dog-eat-dog situation that is about driving other businesses out of business; it is about giving the consumer more choice. That is the fundamental principle about such needs and our ambition to make the consumer market more competitive. That is absolutely right, and I believe the Bill does that.
We also have to guard—unfortunately, this tends to happen in some instances—against vested interests. For some reason, some schools will use a uniform policy for the wrong rationale. It is sometimes about generating more profit or more revenue for the school’s suppliers. It is absolutely right that this Bill is not about restricting the ability of a school to put in place a sensible uniform policy that allows for branding. It is simply a Bill that means we do a minimum of branding, but can increase competition for the other elements of the uniform.
In the Government guidance, there is a simple example of how certain schools have been able to increase competition and reduce costs for their uniform. One particular school is Caldew School in Cumbria, and it has done that by keeping as many items of uniform as possible generic. Whether it is a simple pair of black trousers or a white shirt, this is about reducing the number of items in the uniform policy that are branded.
The hon. Member for Weaver Vale talked about restricting the number of branded items to two. I think that would probably be an unreasonable restriction. We can see why a school may want more latitude in having various items of clothing with different badges, but there are ways to do that without excess cost to the consumer, particularly by allowing people to buy a badge, rather than a whole blazer.
On branded items, I remember when my oldest child started school in the September, I thought we were ready, but then I realised I had not sewn the name tags on all the items. I had to spend the next three hours sewing them on each branded item, with the pain of pricking my fingers quite a number of times. Hence limiting the number of branded items may be welcomed by many parents.
I can see why we may want to reduce the number of branded items, but I guess that has to be done for name tags—for my son, Charlie Hollinrake, I remember my wife sewing them into jumpers, T-shirts and stuff—even in non-branded items, as well as in branded items.
I, too, was a school governor—for six years at our local school. In fact, it was the school I attended myself as a young child, which is a great place to be a governor. There is no doubt that most people can see that having a sensible uniform policy instils pride and identity in young people at their school. It can enhance productivity and create a greater focus, and it is less of a distraction if everybody is dressed in a similar way, they are dressed well, a uniform policy is properly implemented and properly imposed, and standards are high. However, schools can clearly do that without saying that children have to have a particular pair of black trousers. If they let people choose the more generic items—those that do not need to be branded—the greater choice for the consumer will drive down the cost of the uniform.
Interestingly, the Government’s own figures show that the average cost to parents of a uniform, adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 2007. It is right that we look at this policy, and that we take forward the guidance and make it statutory, but we should not think that lots of profiteering is going on in this sector. Generally, the costs are fair. On the costs mentioned earlier, the research from the Children’s Society says it is £340 a year, but that includes lots of other things. The research from the Schoolwear Association shows that, for branded elements, it is about £100 for a typical suite of items, which would typically last two years, so the annual cost of branded items is more like £50, which would be a fairer cost. That is not of course to say that some people will not still struggle: for a lot of people, £50 a year is a significant cost, so it is right that we should seek to minimise it. It is right that there should be measures in place to help people on low incomes afford the uniform.
Just outside my constituency, there is a business called NextGen Clothing, which is a member of the Schoolwear Association. I have spoken to those there, and they absolutely support this legislation. They talked about how they provide branded uniform items for schools, and they also provide a lot of the generic items. They compete on those generic items with Tesco and Marks & Spencer. For example, a pair of black trousers costs £15.40 from that provider, whereas from Marks & Spencer it is about £13. They know they are in a competitive market, and it is absolutely right that they are in a competitive market. It is not just about cost; as several Members have said, it is also about quality.
An interesting point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) about VAT. VAT does apply to children’s clothes for children above the age of 14. After we have left the European Union, we may perhaps look at that. It has been the historical position for some time, but clearly people leave school at a later age than when that VAT policy was implemented, and perhaps we should look at it again. He is quite right that it would reduce by 20% the cost of uniforms for parents and young people.
I am very pleased to be able to support the Bill, and pleased that the Government are supporting it. I encourage all Members to do so, so that this Bill makes a smooth passage through the House.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me for calling me to speak in this debate on a subject that affects families across my constituency of Putney and across the country. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on taking up this Bill. Like many others in this debate, I am speaking in favour of uniforms, but against the excessive cost of uniforms, which in my experience is increasing. I am in favour of the statutory guidance to enforce the Department for Education’s existing guidelines, which make cost and affordability the priority in choosing and setting a uniform list.
I have four children, and it is an extremely proud moment when I dress them up in their uniform—they are very proud to be wearing it—and take them off to their new school. However, there was a heartbreaking moment for me when I attended an open day with my son, when we were going around local comprehensive schools, and I sat down to hear the headmaster’s speech. In front of me, another mum sat down and picked up the information about the school. I saw her picking up the uniform list, looking down it and turning to her son and saying, “We can’t go here”, and they left. That school was never available to them. With that school’s current uniform policy, if someone buys one item of clothing of each of the items, it is £468.50. That is a huge bill to face in September, if their child is going to school for the first time. The uniform policy is a hidden cost for parents at this school, but that parent will never have a chance to have a say on that school’s uniform policy because she will never be going there. That is why this legislation is so important.
Sarah Chapman, who works at the Wandsworth food bank, told me:
“The impact of school uniform costs for families on low incomes can’t be underestimated”
in her experience of talking to families.
“It’s a constant theme in conversations with families at the food bank, especially before the new school year starts, and especially if children are moving to secondary school.”
She says that branded uniforms—it is not just blazers and PE kits; at some schools, it is also skirts and trousers—can push low-income families into struggling to pay the rent and to buy essentials such as food. She says:
“Many parents tell us that it was so much better when the uniform needed was generic grey/black skirts/trousers…which they could buy at much lower cost”,
but still at good quality, from supermarkets.
The food bank has recently been supporting the mum of one daughter of secondary school age, who fled domestic violence and was unable to work or claim benefits while the Home Office processed her asylum application. When Sarah met her, the pressure of previous trauma and present inability to provide basic essentials for her daughter meant she had recently attempted to take her own life. She said that one of the big things for her was that her daughter, at secondary school, was having to wear hand-me-downs she had long grown out of, and as a result was being laughed at by other students. Local church members clubbed together to get her money for her uniform, and she now feels more comfortable being at school in clothes that fit, unsurprisingly. That has lifted a lot of pressure off, but has not fixed the root problem that prescriptive, branded uniforms place unnecessary financial pressures on low-income families. That family will face the same problem again as the daughter grows.
A Children’s Society survey has found that 13% of parents are getting into debt to cover school uniform costs, so that story is not alone. Nearly one in six families said that school uniform costs were to blame for them having to cut back on food and essential items. Uniform to start secondary school can be several hundred pounds, but the costs do not need to be so excessive, and the Bill will result in policy reviews that put affordability first. As many hon. Members have said in this debate, the problem is not with having a uniform, but that schools are increasingly using compulsory branded clothes from exclusive suppliers as part of the uniform. It does not need to be that way.
The Children’s Society research also shows that having an exclusive supplier increases the average cost of a uniform by £71 for secondary schools and £77 for primary schools. My children have been to several different schools during their careers, and there is no school they have been to that does not have an exclusive supplier. The Bill will stop comprehensive schools using uniform as a form of selection by the back door. Legislating for guidance by the Secretary of State to all schools will require them to follow current best practice, which says that when considering how school uniform should be sourced, governing bodies should give highest priority to the consideration of cost and value for money for parents. That will put parents and governors back in the driving seat when it comes to reviewing those policies. Items should be available from good-quality and affordable stores, and exclusive single supplier contracts should be avoided. Too often, schools do not follow that, and governors and parents do not have a basis to challenge those decisions: I think that is the difference that this legislation will make.
I am very pleased to support the Bill. Too many families are paying over the odds for uniform, are going into debt, or are being forced to choose between breaking the rules and breaking the bank. Let us make sure that no child is unable to apply for any school just because of unnecessarily excessive uniform costs.
I welcome the Bill. The hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) and I met two or three weeks ago in a television studio where we were on a programme together. Much like my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), the hon. Gentleman is such a nice man that I think he could persuade me of most things, but he was certainly an articulate advocate for this very important issue when we discussed it in the green room at the television studio, and he has been so again today. I am very proud to come here today, as I said I would, and support him and the Bill.
I will not repeat all the reasons why uniform is a good thing. We have heard lots of reasons so far. I am stood here today because a constituent came to me and said, “James, we have an issue. My daughter, who is unemployed through no fault of her own, has two children at high school in your seat. She is facing a cost of over £300 in respect of the clothing and sporting equipment for her children to go to school.” It was not a case of affordability or an issue for debate: my constituent’s daughter simply did not have the money to provide the uniform that the school in my constituency required her children to have to go to school in the first place. I made inquiries with the school. It is a good school, but it did not have any procedures in place to assist with the costs. I went to my local authority, which also did not have any procedures in place to assist with the cost. It seemed to me that that was a completely unacceptable situation. It is not a question of one person or 5,000. The interests of the one are just as important as the interests of the 5,000 who are affected by something.
The Bill is welcome. I think at its heart is a very simple message. It would give a clear signal to school governing bodies that uniforms must be affordable: how on earth can anyone argue with that? Local authorities are not private businesses, they are state organisations, and they need to provide the best means by which our children can thrive and succeed. Discrimination should not happen as a result of what they have to wear, their background or their parents’ income.
I am a chair of governors at a nursery school, so we do not have some of the problems we have heard about today, but it is in extremely deprived area of my seat. We have a wide catchment area, but many parents at my school could not afford the prices that are being charged for uniforms, and I do not want them to be penalised for that.
This is a simple but excellent Bill that will help and assist in a positive way. But there are other things we should take away from this debate. We should not simply stop here, and as MPs we should work with our local authorities and encourage our schools. Some schools in my area are fantastic and help their pupils through various payment plans and other ways of affording uniform, but we should try to work with our local authorities to ensure that all of them have some financial support in place for constituents, like mine, who are not in a position to send their children to school because they cannot afford the uniform.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly). They say every day is a school day: well, thanks to the speech by the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), I now know what a mufti day is.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on introducing this important Bill, and I am proud to be a sponsor of it. Last week, I was contacted by a woman whose grandson was given a detention because he did not have the right school shoes. Families are waiting for payday to get their children the right uniforms, and in the meantime pupils are suffering. Many of my constituents have spoken to me about the affordability of school uniforms, including one family who had to pay £200 for one child for school uniform and PE kit. That is completely unacceptable. Buying a school uniform for your child is not a one-time occurrence, because kids grow. Parents and carers spend sleepless nights worrying about how they will pay for new shirts, shoes or trousers. Children from poorer families who are unable to replace worn-out or outgrown items of school uniform struggle, and that has to stop.
Last summer, I launched my school uniform exchange in partnership with Barnsley Council. We placed donation boxes in libraries across Barnsley so that families could benefit from donated items of school uniform that were no longer needed.
In Warrington, we have a number of community-led school uniform swap schemes to ease the burden on parents, particularly where they have children in different schools or children who seem to outgrow their uniform as quickly as they get it. Indeed, Warrington food bank also provides school uniforms to families who need them. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill would support such initiatives by making school uniform more affordable, not only for individual families but for the community schemes that support them, by ensuring branded items are kept to a minimum and generic items can be bulk-bought?
I completely agree, and my hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. Her community, like mine, has shown kindness and generosity. Parents and carers across my community came together, and we collected hundreds of items. Families should not be forced to fork out for increasingly expensive items of school uniform. Compulsory branded items and limited numbers of uniform suppliers have caused school uniform prices to skyrocket, severely impacting the household budgets of many families.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent and very powerful speech, no doubt based in part on her experience as a teacher. Does she agree that this huge issue that we have been discussing this morning also needs to be seen in the context of static or falling family incomes and rising fuel, transport and food prices?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This issue does have to be seen in the context of the past 10 years. My area in Barnsley has had the worst cuts in the country, and no doubt that has had an impact. There is no reason why clothes from everyday shops should not be used at a fraction of the cost. Right now, there is no legislation in England that regulates school uniforms. The Bill will make a difference to families in Barnsley and across the country who are desperate to give children the best start in life, even if that means spending money they cannot afford on school uniforms that are unnecessarily expensive. New statutory guidance on school uniform costs that must be followed by schools when setting out their uniform policies will help to put an end to spiralling costs. Barnsley families who are already struggling, due to a near decade of Government cuts to local services, are being pushed into financial difficulty by compulsory uniform purchases.
School uniform is an asset to children’s education, from instilling a sense of school community to supporting good behaviour, but if school uniform prices and policies remain unchecked, they will increasingly become a way of entrenching inequality as schools become a place of punishment and stigma for poor children. The Bill has the potential to change those children’s lives, and I am pleased we are supporting it today.
It is a great pleasure to speak on the Bill. It is one of those occasions when we in this House get to speak on an issue that affects all of us in our everyday lives and the everyday lives of our constituents. I do not yet have school-age children, although it will not be long—my eldest will go to primary school later this year—but my mother was a teaching assistant for many years and my wife—this is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, Madam Deputy Speaker—is a governor at the local primary school. This is an issue that I see and hear about all the time. It matters to us hugely.
We ought to consider at the outset whether, in today’s age, there is a need for school uniforms. We live in a world where we want access to the highest form of education for everybody. We live in an egalitarian age, so it is worth considering at the outset whether there is a need for school uniforms. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for making it clear at the outset that this is not an anti-school uniform Bill. In fact, in many ways, we could say quite the reverse. The Bill seeks to ensure that the benefits, as I see them, of school uniform are available to everybody.
There are benefits to school uniforms, provided that they are managed in a judicious and sensible way that ensures there is access to education for everybody. First, it gets children used, at a young age, to dressing formally and professionally. Those habits are harder to bring on later in life, once people have got used to acting and behaving in a certain way. Whether we go on to work in business, law, medicine, Parliament or whatever it happens to be, the need to dress professionally is something that everybody has to learn. It may be a suit and tie, or it may be less formal than that, but it gets people used to that at an early age, which I feel is a benefit.
The second benefit is one that we have heard mention of today: esprit de corps. It is pride. I think it was the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) who made mention of the pride that she had in dressing up her children and sending them off to school on their first day. It provides a pride in an institution. I think we are more likely to see a school that is successful and well regarded in the local community, that children want to go to and is seen to be successful, if people have pride in it. Parents look around and see their children there and are glad that they go to that school.
There is a further benefit, which perhaps has not been mentioned today, which is that it makes things a bit easier for the pupils who are at the school. We live in an age that is increasingly pressured for young people. We have seen that very powerfully in the context of the mental health debate. More is required of young people at a younger age through the Instagram effect: everyone is expected to look good to show that they are on top of fashion and to show that their lives are the glossy image that all their friends are portraying.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a house system and an ability to identify who is part of your clan within a school is very important to guard against some of the mental health issues he so rightly identifies?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. She is absolutely right. I do feel that a house system and that pride in being part of a group, as well as the competition between houses, is very helpful in providing a support network. That does help to guard against mental health difficulties, too.
I wonder whether any other hon. Members agree on this point. I do not suppose that any of us, when we were young, particularly enjoyed putting on a school uniform. We would have much rather dressed more informally, following our friends in whatever the latest and greatest trends and fashions were at the time. So no one will thank us for school uniforms, but they do have the advantage that children can just wake up and put it on. They are not required to consider how they look. They are not required to consider whether they are in keeping with fashion, whether they have done better than they did yesterday, or whether they are looking better than their friends and peers in school. To that extent, it helps with focus. It helps students to focus on what they are meant to be doing, which is going to school and focusing on learning, without that added pressure. There are already so many pressures on young people, which we discuss so often, arising from peer groups, social media, the internet and magazines, so it may be that there is that additional benefit.
Even if we all accept that point—I suspect we are all more or less on the same lines in seeing that there is a benefit—there is no getting away from the fact that in some circumstances a school uniform can provide a pressure on parents. I hear in my own postbag, as much as other hon. Members do, from those constituents who struggle with the cost. In some circumstances, it is a cost that they are unable to bear.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. Obviously, nobody is suggesting that there should be no school uniform, but if we did not have it the cost of clothing children throughout the school year, with the extra pressure on shoes and so on, could be even more than if there was school uniform.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that excellent point. He is absolutely right. I spoke a moment ago about the pressure on young people of having to look their best and having to comply with fashion in the absence of school uniform. Of course, that pressure does not just impact on them; it also impacts on the parents who would have to bear the cost. If there is pressure—which one of us does not want to do the best for our children; everybody has that feeling—there will be a cost on parents in providing the latest pair of shoes or any other item in the absence of school uniform. He is absolutely right to make the point that in the absence of school uniform the costs on parents could, in fact, be worse.
Does my hon. Friend accept that it is not just that the cost in total is higher? There is also more social stigma on poorer pupils in a non-uniform environment. When we had a non-uniform day at school, I distinctly remember that, instead of us all being the same, there was suddenly great competition—and very expensive competition at that.
Absolutely. That is another excellent point. Younger people have an absence of social tact when it comes to pointing out such differences. Schools can be quite brutal places in the sense that the filter that is there in later adult life is absent. Pupils can feel very much that they are the odd ones out if they come from a family who cannot afford the latest fashion.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be more co-operation between primary schools and secondary schools on generic items such as trousers, skirts, shirts and blouses? A parent might buy an item right at the end of a child’s time at primary school that might well fit them in secondary school, but they cannot use it because the uniform is completely different. Does he agree that if local schools got together and worked on generic items, there could be a completely different outcome on cost, because of all the other items parents have to buy when their children go to secondary school?
I do. That is another excellent point. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) made the point about a student going to school with a jacket that is too long, where it looks like you are wearing your father’s clothes because your parents are trying to get the longest possible wear time out of them. That is understandable and I suppose that that will happen in any event. There is nothing much we can do about that. I suspect that the Government cannot legislate to stop that sort of thing. It is beyond the abilities of this House. [Laughter.] He is absolutely right that when children get to the end of the school year at primary school and they are due to go off to secondary school and have to have new clothes, the old clothes essentially have to be dispensed with when they go to secondary school. We will in due course deal with what will be in the guidance and I will make a few comments about that in a moment, but I think there will be some consultation and that is a point that could be raised.
On the point that was made about generic uniforms, does my hon. Friend agree that schools could provide those not only for primary and secondary, but to work in areas with gang problems and where people are being attacked because of their school uniform? If there were more generic, simplified uniforms in areas of gang violence and in areas where a uniform is creating mental health issues for someone walking through a certain neighbourhood, they could help. Could we make it as easy as possible for people to have certain base pieces of uniform? Could we look at that—how we could help to level this inequality? It is probably something for the schools to look at, but it is also something we could examine.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I am glad that she has. I will come in a moment to the question of how we institute and work the legislation. It is right that decisions be made locally. I will make a comment or two about that in just a second, but that could also be part of the consultation.
The point about transferability from primary to secondary school is incredibly important, and I appreciate the point about not looking too distinctive in particular neighbourhoods, but we have a very mobile workforce. People go from one place to another, and therefore families go from one place to another, so does my hon. Friend agree it is important across the United Kingdom that, as far as possible, people can transfer uniforms from one place to another?
Both my hon. Friends have drawn attention to the importance of having, essentially, a base layer—perhaps the shirt and trousers could be fairly standard across regions and the country—and then an interchangeable element giving the individuality and the esprit de corps that could be taken off if required.
Could I provide my hon. Friend with some constructive challenge, following some of the comments from colleagues around me? Aneurin Bevan once said that nothing is too good for the working class. Nothing should be too good for any school in any area, and therefore every school should be able to have a distinct and clear, rather than excessively generic, identity, out of pride in their school. I would rather that than everyone being in clothes that look like everybody else’s.
That is also an excellent point. My hon. Friend touches on the philosophical point that I will come to in just a moment, if I may. I will make a little progress first though.
We all want to avoid the feeling where someone wants to go to an excellent school in their area but cannot because of cost; or perhaps that is the only school, but it comes with a cost burden they do not want. I think the hon. Member for Putney alluded to that point. That is clearly something we would all want to avoid. How we do that is the philosophical point. I generally take the view that the man in Whitehall does not know better than local areas, that over-centralisation generally comes up with the wrong result and that the individual knows better what is right for them and their family than a centralised machine. Therefore, it is quite uncomfortable, on first principles, that the Government should propose to involve themselves in this level of regulation.
My concern is not so much the gentleman in Whitehall as the gentleman in the courts, because what we are discussing is the creation of statutory guidance, with the prospect of disputes over school uniform policies being referred to the courts. Does my hon. Friend agree that, while we want to reduce costs, we must draw up this guidance in such a way that minimises the use of this new statutory guidance as a political weapon to cause trouble for academy schools, for example?
I could not agree more—my hon. Friend is absolutely right—but that point does not so much go to the principle of the Bill as to what goes into the guidance when it is drafted. That is a matter for the consultation, which we should all want to look at in great detail. A lot of the concerns raised about the Bill allude to what is to be in that guidance and the consultation process, which I understand will happen in due course.
Philosophically, I would prefer national government not to involve itself in this level of detail. That is fairly standard Conservative thought; I suspect that most of my hon. Friends would agree. So what are we trying to do with this Bill? Ultimately, Conservatism is about pragmatism and seeking the result we would all wish to achieve, rather than being obsessed with or trammelled by dogma. In some circumstances, therefore, I think it appropriate that the Government step in and Parliament legislate, and that is what the Government are ultimately trying to do here.
The Department has already produced the guidance; the only question here is what someone can do if that guidance is not followed. As I understand it, the Bill seeks to provide that, in extremis—where a school is not listening—there is an appeal to the Secretary of State, who could then intervene to work with the school to address those concerns. The Government are not proposing to impose a certain school uniform type, or to abolish it, or to be the recourse in the first instance for any complaint. As I understand it, in all circumstances, that would remain with the school and the school governors.
This brings me to the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer)—I apologise to him for not having addressed his point earlier. I am interested in freedom, personal choice and localisation and localised decision making, and it seems to me that the Bill does not contravene those fundamental principles. If schools locally decide they do not want a generic uniform, they could make that decision. Equally, if they decide that across a particular town or region it would be in the interests of their pupils to do that, they could adopt that principle and make that choice. I am happy with that in these circumstances.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as we move from non-statutory guidance to statutory guidance, actually, there is a strong argument for somewhat looser guidance and more carve-outs? For example, achieving non-single supplier status is much more difficult in remote rural areas than in the middle of London. In some sense, the guidance, if it is to be statutory guidance, needs to be looser, if we are to avoid lots of appeals to the Secretary of State and excessive clampdowns on our hard-won school freedoms.
Yes. That is another superb point. I hope this is a useful debate for the Minister in thrashing out in advance some of the points we will need to consider in the consultation. One of the great successes of this Government and their predecessor Governments over the last 10 years has been the creation of freedom and choice for schools, which has led to the outstanding educational results we have had, and I would not want any of that to be reversed. I am very aware of that.
I would like more competition in the provision of school uniforms. Generally—again, this is fairly uncontroversial Conservative thought—I believe that more competition will generally lead to a better product and lower prices, and I would like that to be the case here. That said, I am aware of my hon. Friend’s point that that might be hard to achieve in rural areas, and I certainly would not wish a school to be penalised for transgressing a rule that it has no choice but to contravene.
As a general principle, I would like the Government to stay out of people’s professional affairs and lives wherever possible. I would like outstanding teachers to do the job of teaching and to concentrate on their passionate desire to make people’s lives better, without worrying about being taken to court or excessive regulation coming from Whitehall. I am, therefore, very aware that there is an important balance to be struck here, but that is a question for the consultation and the statutory guidance that will come after it.
My final point is about quality as opposed to sheer cost. Some excellent points have been made about quality items that could be handed down through the generations. We have heard great examples of that on both sides of the House. Sheer unit cost ought not to be the overriding point, if quality is being lost in the process.
Overall, however, while at first glance some aspects of the Bill seem counterintuitive for this Government, it is a judicious use of small-scale intervention to do our best for something that matters to us all—the welfare of families in our constituencies and the children and students who go to our schools—and therefore I support it.
I start by wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) a happy birthday—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on introducing this important Bill and thank all hon. Members from across the House who have spoken in today’s debate. He is not just an hon. Friend, but an actual friend, and not just mine, because it seems that the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly) and other Members have taken to him as well. I do not think that that is down to his good fashion sense—[Laughter.] As he pointed out, school uniforms can hide some of the disastrous fashion mistakes that many of us have made. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) mentioned his school uniform fashion, his trainers in particular, and many Members will know that I have an obsession with shoes, and I have put my own little twist on things with the ones I am wearing today.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale in paying tribute to the former Member for Peterborough, Lisa Forbes, who introduced a similar Bill in the previous Parliament and did so much to bring the issue to the nation’s attention. My hon. Friend’s Bill is important because there are no binding rules on school uniforms in England. I hope the Minister’s response will answer my hon. Friend’s points about limiting branded items and breaking down the monopolies of single suppliers, and many Members quite rightly mentioned the quality of school uniforms.
I reiterate that this Bill is not anti-school uniform, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) outlined in her valuable contribution. We also heard from the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) and the new hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), who continues the legacy of the previous Member for his constituency with his passion for education and his personal experience, from which I am sure the House will benefit. I also acknowledge the expertise of the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) shown in his contribution. The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) made a pithy speech—[Laughter.] There was so much of value in it that there is not enough time for me to go through it all, but he clearly has a talent that will be used many times in the House in the coming months and years.
I am pleased that there is a consensus across the House today on this Bill. It was in November 2015 that then Tory Chancellor promised to legislate on such issues, but we are now four years and four Education Secretaries on. I have responded to three Conservative Queen’s Speeches and still nothing has happened. It has fallen on Labour Members to step in, introducing two Bills in six months. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale, with the help of Back Benchers from across the House, including the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), has had to do the Government’s job for them, and I hope they will now offer him their full support.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale mentioned in his opening speech, school uniform costs blight working families in England, and many Members have spoken about examples from their constituencies. Although I am in a privileged position now, I remember all too well just how expensive it was to put my first son through school. It is a problem that still affects my constituents today, as well as the friends I grew up with. My hon. Friends the Members for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) all expressed that point eloquently in their passionate contributions today. Their complaints echo the concerns of the mums who gave evidence to the Select Committees on Education and on Work and Pensions last summer and spoke of the strain of school uniform costs and the huge pressures put on their budgets in the school holidays. The Minister will know that the previous Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee warned the Government that school uniform costs reinforced the financial difficulties that many parents face during the summer holidays. I pay tribute to the organisations and MPs who assist with the swap of school uniforms to help those parents.
Many Members mentioned the figures from the Children’s Society that were released today, showing that parents are spending over £300 on uniforms and that hundreds of thousands of children across England are going to school wearing incorrect or ill-fitting uniforms. I know that some Members question that research, but many families watching this debate know the reality, and I welcome the work of the Children’s Society that has contributed to today’s debate. Parents have reported that they have had to cut back on essentials like food to cover the cost of school uniforms, and children have been sent home and denied their education, but this Bill will change that. The hon. Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer) and others made important points about pragmatic considerations, and it is right that we consider them, but it is also right that I share that I also have a love for “The Simpsons” and that I am about to hit a milestone which means that I am old enough to remember the Bartman.[Laughter.]
The Bill will ensure that hard-pressed parents will not suffer the indignity of their children being sent home because they are wearing the wrong uniform. It will free up money for parents to spend on activities for their kids during the summer holidays. Above all, it will ensure that no child is priced out of school, because our fundamental belief is that education should be free, and under my national education service it would be free and lifelong at the point of need as well. This Bill takes us one step towards that ideal. I am proud to endorse it today, and I urge all Members to support it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) on his success in the private Member’s Bill ballot and thank him for choosing the cost of school uniform as the subject of his Bill. School uniform has so many positive benefits for pupils and schools alike, and I, along with many of the House today, greatly value its contribution to school life. I am pleased that the Government are able to support his Bill and, indeed, to be working with him, so that families are financially reassured, not burdened, at back-to-school time.
As the hon. Gentleman stated, this Bill is not anti-school uniform—“far from it,” he said—because he remembers his time at a school without a school uniform in that fashion golden age of the late 1970s and early 1980s. He pointed out that a lack of school uniform highlights the difference between
“the haves and the have-nots”.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) cited pupils from William Harding School and St Edward’s Catholic Junior School in his constituency, who said that school uniforms stop children being judged on what they wear. He also went to a school that did not have a school uniform at the time and where the result was close to a “catwalk competition” that he claimed he never won, which frankly surprises me—[Laughter.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) raised the cost implications of dress-up day, which was an issue of particular concern at his old school: Hogwarts—[Laughter.]
We debated this issue just a few months ago in a Westminster Hall debate secured by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). Then, as now, our position is that school uniforms should be affordable and good value for families. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Weaver Vale for choosing this topic, as it is a subject that crosses party lines and the Bill will positively improve the lives of families across this country. I support the way that the hon. Member constructed the Bill as a straightforward mechanism to put the non-statutory guidance on school uniform costs on to a statutory footing. I hope that that approach means it will progress quickly through the House.
As we move from non-statutory to statutory guidance, is the Minister conscious that some of the issues touched upon in the current non-statutory guidance, such as religious freedom, cultural differences, parent voice and the governor’s responsibility to take into account reasonable requests for change, could become very politically contentious? They could drive a large number of cases on to his and his fellow Ministers’ desks. Is he sympathetic to my thought that we should be clear in new statutory guidance about the kinds of things that will still be the subject of local school freedom and local choice and not the decision of the man in Whitehall?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Those issues are important and are all covered in the non-statutory guidance. The Bill does not seek to put those items on to a statutory basis; they will remain in the non-statutory guidance. The Bill seeks to put the cost elements—just the items relating to the costs of school uniform—into statutory guidance.
A school uniform is important. It helps to create a school’s identity. It fosters belonging and, with that, a sense of community. It can make background and family income less transparent, working instead to highlight commonality among pupils. It is a “social leveller”, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer). For many pupils, wearing their uniform gives a sense of pride. As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) emphasised, that is a key objective of a school uniform. When pupils represent their school at events or competitions, their uniform plays an important part in creating a team spirit.
The Government encourage schools to have a school uniform because of how it can contribute to the ethos of a school and help it to set an appropriate tone, supporting good behaviour and discipline. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) cited a school in his constituency that saw a marked improvement in academic standards following the introduction of a zero-tolerance policy on school uniform. That is why affordable uniforms are so important. School uniforms are also important in teaching children how to dress professionally, as pointed out in the tour de force of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). For many schools, a school uniform can be a reflection of the school’s history or the history of the local area, and it is right that schools are able to continue to honour tradition in that way and preserve their long-standing identity.
The Government also believe that it is right for the responsibility for setting school uniform policy to rest with the governing body of a school, or the academy trust in the case of academies. It is for schools to decide whether there should be a school uniform and, if so, what it should be and how it should be sourced. The Bill upholds and protects schools’ decision making in those areas. It upholds all the freedoms that are so important to the Government and to my hon. Friends the Members for Witney and for Harborough (Neil O’Brien).
In an increasingly autonomous school system, it is right for schools to make those decisions, but in doing so, it is essential that they consider value for money for parents. Issuing statutory guidance will enable schools to take decisions within a sensible framework that prioritises the issue of costs for families.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Bill will also help those parents who have children in different schools and therefore do not benefit from the possibility of handing down a uniform from one sibling to another? The affordability that would result from the Bill would help those particular parents.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. No matter how much we try to have uniform swap exchanges, as I will come to, or, indeed, hand-me-downs, when there are different schools with different uniforms, inevitably parents will need to buy a new uniform, and in those circumstances we want to make sure that the costs are affordable for those families.
I thank the Minister for his sympathy with the values of the Bill. Will he make a few remarks about how he will engage across the country as the Bill and the statutory guidance move forward? Will he reassure the House that teams in Whitehall will be gender-balanced? We have had three references to men in Whitehall today, but I think we all acknowledge that there are women involved in the work of Whitehall as well, and it is particularly important to give that message in the month of International Women’s Day.
If the hon. Lady turns her eyes to the civil service Box, she will see that six out of seven members are women, reflecting the gender balance that is prevalent in the Department for Education. She raises an important point about the statutory guidance, and we will be talking to schools, suppliers of uniforms and all the stakeholders about making statutory the guidance that has already been drafted.
We can all appreciate the positive impact that a school uniform can have on the sense of cohesion and community, but equally, we understand the financial burden that it can present, particularly for lower-income families. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) said, a school uniform can often be less expensive than not wearing school uniform. In 2015, the Department commissioned the cost of school uniform survey, which showed that the average cost of a school uniform was £213 and that the average cost of most uniform items decreased between 2007 and 2015, once adjusted for inflation—a point referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). More recently, the Schoolwear Association undertook a survey that found that the average cost of branded items for a child starting secondary school was £101 for both uniform and sportswear, and that the average annual spend per parent on branded items was between £35 and £45.
The Children’s Society has today released a report which found that parents said they spent on average around £315 on primary and £337 on secondary school uniforms per child. These reports may not all present the same picture of the cost of school uniforms for parents and will depend, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) pointed out, on what is included in the survey. How many pairs of trousers, for example, are included in what parents buy for their children? However, I think we can all agree that the cost can have an impact, particularly on lower-income families, and that it is therefore crucial that school uniform costs are affordable. That is why this Bill is so important and why statutory guidance is needed.
Many schools have, in fact, already made efforts to support vulnerable families with the cost of school uniforms, whether through pupil premium grants or through second-hand uniform schemes such as the school uniform exchange in Barnsley, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock). I would like to see every school finding a way to make second-hand uniforms available. My younger brother, whom you know, Mr Speaker, had the advantage of wearing my hand-me-downs on occasion, and it did not do him any harm.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Daly) is right that schools should be able to help the poorest families with the costs of school uniform. This Bill sends a clear signal to schools that the costs of the school uniform must not be a barrier to parents choosing a particular school for their child or for a child attending a particular school. School uniforms must not be unreasonably priced, and schools must not disregard the importance of achieving value for money for parents. We will be producing statutory guidance on the cost aspects of school uniforms that makes it clear to both parents and schools that uniforms must be affordable and value for money. We will be engaging, as I have said, with key stakeholders to understand their views as statutory guidance on uniform costs is drafted.
One school in Ilford South has written to me of its concerns about items that are not strictly part of the school uniform—for example, hairbands that have to be black or the overcoats that the girls wear to school. I wonder whether the guidance that is being prepared could include some flexibility, so that schools cannot specify things that are not school uniform and therefore increase the financial burden on parents.
The non-statutory guidance says that branded items should be kept to a minimum, and we support that view. On issues such as hairbands, I would ask the hon. Gentleman to visit the Thomas Jones school in Saint Mark’s road in west London, which has very strict guidance for pupils on issues such as hairbands and other things—small things, such as not having dangly keyrings hanging from their school bags. The consequence is that pupils there are very smart, despite the fact that many of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It does create a sense of community, a sense of work ethic and a sense of equality among children from different financial backgrounds. Issues such as hairbands can, sometimes, be more important than the hon. Gentleman might think.
I endorse the point my hon. Friend is making. When I was at secondary school, we were not allowed to wear white socks. Obviously, I am not talking about games. I am talking about the socks that children wear with their school uniform and school shoes. Aside from the fact that they look terrible, does he agree that there is no financial implication of requiring children to wear socks of a certain colour? It just looks smarter and more in keeping with the style of the school.
I bow to my hon. Friend’s experience of fashion as to whether they look good or not. He is right that just requiring a certain colour of sock, or indeed a hairband, does not necessarily add to the costs for the parents, but it does send a clear message that the school has very high standards of dress and appearance, and that can have an impact on academic standards and the work ethic of a school.
A number of hon. Members have raised issues that relate to the contents of the statutory guidance, and the starting point for that guidance will, as I have said, be the existing non-statutory guidance on school uniforms, but there are two particular issues that I wish to address. The first is branded items. Of course, it is understandable that schools will often want to have branded items of uniform that are specific to their schools, such as a branded blazer or a particular tie, and, at present, the Department’s guidance advises schools to keep such branded items of uniform to a minimum, because multiple branded items can significantly increase costs. Although the Government believe that that is the right approach, we do not want to ban branded items altogether. Branded items such as a blazer of a particular colour or style may well be part and parcel of a school’s history or ethos and may not be available, for example, from a supermarket.
The second issue is single suppliers. The Department’s guidance already recommends that schools avoid exclusive single-supply contracts unless a regular competitive tendering process is run to secure best value for parents. Again, the Government believe that this approach provides the right balance to secure open and transparent arrangements and good value for money. Competition is key to keeping costs down, as pointed out in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving so much of his time. Does he agree that statute often casts a long shadow as people overreact to things? For example, I struggled greatly to sign up to my village newsletter because of people totally overinterpreting the general data protection regulation. Is the Minister sympathetic to my plea for a non-exhaustive list of things that definitely are allowed? Many schools will think, “Oh, gosh, what does this guidance mean? We had better not do this and not do that, because the guidance might say this.” People can be very panicky. Will he please lengthen the non-exhaustive list of things that are definitely allowed?
I take on board my hon. Friend’s important point.
For the supply of certain bespoke items, which form part of a school’s uniform, single-supplier contracts can have value. It ensures year-round supply; it allows the supplier to provide a full range of sizes, not just the popular sizes; and it secures economies of scale, so I do not believe that we should ban those arrangements. None the less, we want them to be transparent and competitive.
My hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and for Northampton South, as well as the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), raised the issue of the quality and availability of school uniform, which is something that a single supplier from a specialist school uniform retailer will be able to deliver.
We trust headteachers to take the right decisions on these issues, and once the statutory guidance is issued, to abide by it. Where that does not happen and parents have a legitimate grievance, however, there must be an enforcement mechanism. As now, if parents have concerns that their school’s uniform is too expensive, they should raise that with the school and, where issues cannot be resolved locally at the school level, parents may raise it with the Department for Education. Were a school to be considered to be acting unreasonably on the cost of its school uniform, the Bill would enable the Department to act. In extreme cases, the Secretary of State could issue a direction to a maintained school under sections 496 and 497 of the Education Act 1996 to comply with the guidance.
In the case of academies, a provision in the funding agreement states that an
“Academy Trust must comply with…any legislation or legal requirement that applies to academies”.
That means that the duty to have regard to statutory guidance can be enforced using the Department’s enforcement powers under the funding agreement.
School uniforms play a vital role in school communities and are deeply valued by parents and pupils alike. We want uniforms to continue to be held in positive esteem by families, so that the benefits outweigh the costs for families. The Bill ensures that families will not have to worry about an excessively priced school blazer or forgo sending their child to a school for fear of an expensive PE kit. Fundamentally, we want to secure the best value for families and to do so by introducing statutory guidance. The Government support the Bill, and I urge Members of the House to support its Second Reading.
With the leave of the House, I thank everyone who has attended and spoken today, some at more considerable length than others.
I thank the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), the hon. Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green), my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer), the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston) —an excellent speech by the way—my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), my new-found friend the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly), my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts). A number of Members have also made powerful interventions.
I thank my good friend and former boss, the shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who again made a powerful speech and, very importantly, has been a long-standing champion of this issue. I also thank the Secretary of State, the Minister and the formidable team behind the Ministers, who are predominantly women—we should note that—as well as the 20 or so organisations that have been champions of the Bill for some time. Other significant people include the sponsors of the Bill. I will not go through individual names—they know who they are. I thank them for their fantastic and powerful contributions.
Finally, and very importantly, I thank the children involved with the Children’s Society who shaped and contributed to some of the original guidance in 2013. They paved the way for the Bill. As well as consulting with manufacturers and retailers—there are some great ones out there—the Bill, with fair, transparent and competitive tendering, will open up opportunities for them. The shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), wrote to me only yesterday about a manufacturer that is a little concerned about aspects of the Bill. That manufacturer is an absolute bargain basement and it offers quality, so the provisions of the Bill should offer it opportunities.
I again thank the Children’s Society, which has been a key supporter of the Bill. I look forward to contributing to its passage through the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time, to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).