Cutting down on cost

The benefits of wearing a school uniform are clear. It instils a sense pride in a school, improves behaviour, and much more besides. Despite all of this, the continued importance and cost of school uniform is a topic that is regularly debated in the wider media.

According to a report by Mintel, the back-to-school market was worth £1.16 billion in 2018, an increase of 36% on the previous year.

Mintel states several factors contributing to this rise, notably that eight of 10 parents said they prefer to spend more on back-to-school items that will last, which gives a distinct advantage to schoolwear suppliers over budget chains. The average spend on school uniform and shoes was £134, compared to £127 spent in 2017.

Samantha Dover, Mintel senior retail analyst, commented: “Price does, however, remain a driving factor behind a lot of back-to-school purchasing. Competition in the school uniform market has particularly intensified in recent years with discounters continuing to undercut clothing specialists and supermarkets. However, strict school policies, as well as an increased interest in sustainability with most parents willing to spend more on clothes that will last longer, means that average spend on school uniforms continues to rise.”

High uniform cost

Last summer alone, stories relating to the high cost of uniform were repeatedly covered by the BBC, Sky News, the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Metro, to name but a few, with many parents calling on schools to lower the cost of school uniforms.

During the last 12 months in particular, there has been significant pressure placed on the schoolwear market to change this.

Back in September the Competition & Markets Authority wrote a letter to Gavin Williamson MP, the Secretary of State for Education, stating that ‘school uniforms are a major cost to many families’. The letter, prompted by a surge of complaints from parents and carers every summer about the excessive cost of uniforms where school policies prevent items from being purchased from cheaper alternative suppliers, urged the Department of Education to consider rolling out a similar policy to the Welsh Government. School governing boards in Wales take account of cost and affordability in their uniform policies and avoid contracts with single suppliers.

The Department of Education responded by stating that the Government ‘has announced its plan to put the school uniform guidance on a statutory footing and will do so when a suitable opportunity arises.’ The statement continued to say that this will send a clear signal that the department expects schools to ensure uniform costs are reasonable.

Current guidance set out in 2013 emphasises to school leaders that they must consider carefully the cost and availability of uniform. The guidance notes that there is a legal obligation on schools to ensure that uniform policy is not so expensive as to discourage parents from applying for a place.

The 2013 guidance added the following advice; that governing bodies should prioritise value for money for parents and be able to demonstrate how best value has been achieved; that compulsory branded items should be kept to a minimum; cash back arrangements with school uniform suppliers were prohibited; and exclusive single supplier contracts should be avoided, unless regular tendering competitions are run.

However, this announcement about a shift from guidance to policy was made before the general election was held in December last year. Kathryn Shuttleworth, managing director of David Luke, offers her thoughts: “There has been significant political pressure on the schoolwear market over the last 12 months and it is unclear whether the change in government will affect this or not.

“With the spotlight likely to remain on price of uniform, it will become imperative for suppliers and retailers to differentiate and have more to offer than just price alone. This has always been clear to us at David Luke – someone can always be cheaper – but the value that can be added through durable and ethical choices will be remembered after price is forgotten. As we celebrate our ‘Eco-versary’, 10 years of making eco-uniform, we will continue to innovate and offer the market alternative and responsible choices.”

When government guidance is finally upgraded to statutory, there may be a particular focus on limiting the use of logos as suggested in the current government guidance. The Welsh Government’s policy already advises schools to do so and a limitation is regularly called for by key campaigners. The use of logos is actually minimal for the majority of schools. Most schools require it to be embroidered on three or less items of uniform, but the small minority of schools that require five or more items to be embroidered appears to be driving this change in policy.

At the time of going to press, Labour MP Mike Amesbury had introduced a private member’s bill to Parliament which will require schools in England not to rely on a single supplier for their uniforms, unless the contract has gone to tender. The bill will put existing guidance to schools – including that they should avoid single supplier contracts and keep compulsory branded items to a minimum to save cost – on a statutory basis. The full details of the legislation are still being worked out.

In response to this news, a spokesman for the Schoolwear Association said that the legislation ‘has the potential to massively damage, if not destroy, the market and hand it to the supermarkets’. The SA has been working tirelessly the past few years to ensure the industry is ready for the process of making the guidelines statutory.

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