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Is it time to rethink school uniform grant?

August 29th 2017

As ‘back-to-school’ activity reaches a peak, Victoria Winckler asks if the Welsh Government’s school uniform grant is really helping low-income families and what might be the alternative.

 

Last week an ad on Twitter caught my eye – it was for the Welsh Government’s school uniform grant.  The scheme offers £109 towards the cost of a uniform for children who receive free school meals and are entering year 7 (or are 11 years old and in a special school or pupil referral unit).  The scheme was introduced in 2005-6, and at the time was a very welcome replacement of the hotch-potch of local authority schemes.

But twelve years on, is it time to revisit the scheme?

Buying school uniforms is an expensive business.  The Children’s Society calculated that kitting out a child at the start of secondary school cost an eye-watering £316 each in 2015.  It’s not just the trousers, shirts and shoes, it’s the fancy blazers (£32 for a girl’s blazer for Bishop Hedley school in Merthyr Tydfil), the pleated skirts (£16 for Stanwell School in Penarth) or logo-ed sweatshirt (£13.15 if you go to Bishopton Comprehensive in Swansea).

Parents have no choice about buying these items either.  Almost all schools take a tough line on the wearing of uniform, as this example from Ysgol Stanwell’s website makes clear:

Wearing uniform is compulsory for all school occasions, including the journey to and from school. Failure to comply could result in exclusion from class/school.

Does the grant help parents?

At these sorts of prices, the school uniform grant only covers part of the costs – a blazer, a couple of shirts, sweatshirt and a tie is about all it will stretch to. There’s also the PE kit (of course bespoke to the school and therefore expensive), the school bag and pencil case, the science aprons and so on. So the grant is a help but doesn’t cover the total cost.

Bizarrely, the grant is only available on starting secondary school.  Guess what – children grow. So either children wear the same blazer throughout secondary school or parents have to fork out again in a few years’ time for another outfit. I was lucky if my children’s trousers and tops lasted a whole year let alone a whole school career.

And there’s the perennial problem of the grant being available only to those in receipt of free school meals – which are limited to children whose parents are out of work. With the majority of children on low incomes now living in families where someone is in work, the grant is reaching less than half the families who need it.

So what to do instead?

The school uniform grant increasingly looks like a complex solution to a simple problem. The problem is that school uniforms are prohibitively expensive. The solution is surely to cut the costs of uniform to the absolute minimum, rather than employ government officials to check the eligibility of parents to receive £700,000 which goes straight into the pockets of the uniform suppliers. We suggested that a simple uniform be the standard some eight years ago – and still there’s no change.

The Welsh Government’s 2008 guidance on school uniform makes the right noises. It says that it:

expects governing bodies to give high priority to the cost considerations. No school uniform should be so expensive as to leave pupils or their families feeling unable to apply for admission or to attend a particular school.

It goes on to advise against:

  • specialist items that cannot be bought in national retailers
  • high cost items such as blazers and caps
  • use of embroidered logos – suggesting stick-on or sew-on logos on a limited number of items.

A quick look at most schools’ uniform requirements shows that there is still some way to go before they can be said to have heeded that advice.

And there’s the rub

The reason that the Welsh Government cannot require schools to adopt a a simple, low-cost uniform is that, under the 1988 Education Reform Act (amended by a great deal of subsequent legislation but not fundamentally changed) the conduct of a school is the responsibility of its governing body.  The Welsh Government can do no more than advice, support, chide and encourage.

The Welsh Government will quite happily consider reorganising the structure and governance of Wales’ local authorities, health boards and numerous quangos, but not, it seems, our schools.

Time for re-think maybe?

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation.  Our supporters enable us to raise issues like this – please help us to speak out by giving just £3.25 a month.

 

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