Education International
Education International

UK families forced to choose between school uniforms and food

published 22 October 2015 updated 23 October 2015

A UK report shows that the mounting cost of school uniforms has led to the families of more than one million children to cut back on food spending and basic essentials.

The report, published by the UK’s Children’s Society, also reveals that more than half a million are living in families that have fallen into debt because of the cost of school-mandated uniforms.

“The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) has been campaigning for much more clear, coherent and robust guidance about the charges schools levy on parents, including school uniforms,” said NASUWT General Secretary Chris Keates, noting that government only provides guidance on keeping costs down rather than firm regulation. In the UK, 82% of all English state schools have a compulsory uniform; 79% of primary schools have a uniform, and 98% of secondary schools have one. However, uniforms are not a government requirement.

Based on statistics from the Department for Education on numbers of pupils in state schools, the report by the Children’s Society, “The Wrong Blazer: Time for action on school uniform costs,” published in last February, estimates that parents pay about £2.1 billion (approximatively $3.25 billion USD) per year on school uniforms.

It also reveals that families are giving out an average of £251 ($388 USD) per year for each child at a state primary school and £316 ($488 USD) for a child at a state secondary, with shoes the most expensive item at secondary level, costing £56 ($86 USD) annually for each child.

Keates stressed that “at a time when there are over 3.7 million children in the UK living in poverty as a result of the Government’s fiscal and social policies, parents should not be facing an additional tax on their children’s learning.”

“For families on low or average incomes, uniforms can often be prohibitively expensive,” added Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, another EI affiliate.

“If parents can’t afford the uniform they will simply have to choose another school, and this in effect becomes a form of selection,” she said. A view supported by the report of The Children’s Society, uncovering that a quarter of a million children have had their school chosen partly on account of the cost of the uniform.

According to Blower, “getting rid of single suppliers and ensuring uniforms are generic and can be bought in a number of places would certainly be a step forward,” because, as shown in the report by The Children’s Society, where parents have to buy from a specific supplier, costs are an average of £48 ($74 USD) per year higher for secondary school children and £93 ($143 USD) higher for primary school children.

The Competition and Markets Authority, a non-ministerial government department in the UK responsible for strengthening business competition and preventing and reducing anti-competitive activities has recently supported the education unions’ opinions by sending out a letter urging head teachers, governing bodies and suppliers to let parents buy uniforms at the best possible prices.