This post was written by Christian McAleenan, Managing Director of Owl & Badger, a schoolwear business. Christian is an advocate of reducing school uniform costs by allowing parents to shop from multiple school uniform suppliers.
At the beginning of September the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), whose role is to police competition law, wrote to the Department for Education (DfE). In its letter the CMA said that “school uniforms are a major cost to families” and blamed “school policies [that] prevent items being purchased from cheaper alternative suppliers”.
The letter was prompted, the CMA said, by a surge of complaints from parents and carers about the excessive cost of uniforms.
Undoubtedly, the CMA was also motivated by stories in the press highlighting the issue.
The DfE responded in turn. During the exchange both organisations referred to guidance they had each issued respectively to schools and school uniform shops.
But what is that guidance and how should school leaders expect government policy to develop going forward?
What the DfE Says
When Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, responded to the CMA he referred to guidance provided to schools in 2013.
That guidance is the ‘School uniform guidance for governing bodies, school leaders, school staff and local authorities’.
In summary, it notes the benefits of uniform and states that it is for the governing body of a school (or academy trust in the case of academies) to decide uniform policy. The views of the wider parent body should also be properly considered.
It is applicable to both secondary school and primary school uniform policies.
The main thrust of the guidance is to emphasise 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.
It further builds on this, advising schools that:
• governing bodies should prioritise value for money for parents and be able to demonstrate how best value has been achieved;
• 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.
Additionally, the guidance focuses on human rights, equality and discrimination considerations (something QA Education has touched on before here). The DfE reminds schools that though “pupils have the right to manifest a religion or belief,” this right can be restricted if properly justified (e.g. on genuine health and safety concerns).
In any event, a school’s leadership should always be sensitive, reasonable and willing to engage in dialogue to resolve any problems.
Governors should be open to considering reasonable requests for flexibility in uniform policy from individual pupils when doing so will accommodate particular social and cultural needs.
Should things break down, governing bodies have a legal obligation to have a complaints procedure in place to deal with issues including those relating to school uniform.
Finally, a school can discipline pupils for breaching the school’s rules on appearance or uniform. This should be carried out in accordance with the school’s published behaviour policy.
This can include asking a pupil to go home briefly to change. However, consideration must be given to the child’s age and vulnerability, time it will take and availability of parents.
What the CMA Says
Turning to the CMA, their guidance is set out in an open letter sent to schools and school uniform suppliers in October 2015.
The October 2015 letter repeats the DfE advice that head teachers and governing boards should help to ensure that prices are competitive and deliver good value for money. It also states that exclusive supplier relationships for school uniform undermine that requirement.
To that end the letter states school leaders should:
1. ensure that parents’ and carers’ views on school uniform policy are taken on board and prioritise value for money when selecting uniform retailers; and
2. review current uniform arrangements with any exclusive supplier or retailer, modifying it to drive competition between school uniform suppliers instead.
The CMA also highlighted that not doing so could mean a school was breaking competition law and could be investigated formally by the CMA.
It is worth noting that even were the CMA does not act, a school risks being drawn into litigation brought independently by uniform suppliers who have been barred from selling uniform to parents.
Such litigation would undoubtedly be costly, time consuming and disastrous for a school’s reputation.
The government guidance to schools outlined above is now several years old. However, the guidance does not appear to have resolved the issue.
Indeed, as grants issued to low income parents for school uniform are scaled back, the issue is likely to get worse.
Unsurprisingly, this is causing government to react.
The most movement to date has been seen in Wales. The Welsh Government issued new statutory guidance, which came into force on 1 September 2019.
The Welsh guidance repeats the requirement for governing bodies to focus on reducing the cost of uniform and also brings in a new emphasis on promoting gender neutrality.
It also provides clear suggestions on how to do achieve these goals, including the adoption of uniforms that can be bought from more than one outlet and the limitation of the use of badges or logos.
Its ‘statutory’ nature means that schools are legally obliged to consider the advice set out within it (the DfE guidance referenced above is ‘non-statutory’, but see below as this is likely to change).
At the same time, opposition MPs in Westminster have been campaigning to push down school uniform prices.
At a joint session of the Education and Work and Pensions Committees, held in early September, MPs considered a number of issues including holiday hunger. They also spent time discussing uniform.
At the hearing Government ministers were very sympathetic to the plight of parents facing high bills and more than willing to place the blame with schools.
The Education minister Lord Agnew told MPs that the Government wished to “tell these schools to not be so ridiculous” adding that “it’s mindless bureaucracy on the part of… schools.”
There was a strong feeling that exclusive supplier relationships were detrimental.
The UK Government has already said that they want to follow the Welsh Government and put policy on a statutory footing.
The CMA supports this position, but acknowledged nothing would happen until ‘parliamentary time allowed.’
This is perhaps code for ‘when Brexit is resolved’.
For good or ill, preparations for the UK’s exit from the EU has put pressure on Parliamentary time, required the redeployment of civil servants and resulted in a high churn rate of Secretaries of State (Mr Williamson is the third in three years).
All have had the effect of pushing school uniform down the Department’s list of priorities.
However, schools should expect government guidance to be upgraded to ‘statutory’ at some point in the future.
When that policy is finally implemented, there may be a particular focus on limiting the use of logos. The Welsh Government’s guidance already advises schools to do so and a limitation is regularly called for by key campaigners on the issue, such as Emma Hardy MP.
Interestingly, the use of logos is actually limited for the majority of schools. Most schools require it to be embroidered on three or less items of uniform (i.e. the sweatshirt, cardigan and polo shirt), but the 1-3% of schools that require 5 or more items appear to be skewing policy.
Source – Cost of School Uniform, Department for Education, June 2015
Evidently, pressure for government to alleviate the cost of the annual ‘Back to School’ shop will continue to build.
To ensure schools stay on the right side of government, school leaders should revaluate uniform policy.
The abandonment of exclusive supplier arrangements and encouragement of greater competition between uniform shops (by allowing more of them to sell parents uniform) would be a good first step.