The Wrong Blazer 2020

This report provides updated findings on rising school uniform costs in the UK. It highlights how unnecessarily high uniform costs have negative impacts on children, including children being sent home from school or affecting what school their parents choose for them. It calls on government to change the law on uniform policy to make schools give highest priority to cost.

Number of pages:

12 pages

Date published:

Introduction

'My daughter has requested I write a letter saying she is injured in order to miss PE as she had lost her socks and I couldn’t afford to replace them (so I had asked her to tell the teacher and ask if she could borrow some from lost property). My daughter would rather have skipped PE (which she enjoys) than possibly be overheard by one of her peers and risk the embarrassment of being poor.' - Parent, February 2020

School uniforms can play a vital part in contributing to the ethos of a school, particularly in ‘poverty-proofing’ classrooms from the demands of latest trends. However, needlessly high costs, particularly when school governing bodies require parents to buy exclusive or branded items, undermine the equalising quality of school uniform. Instead, expensive uniform requirements place an unnecessary burden on parents and children.

The Children’s Society’s 2020 survey (of around 1,000 parents across the UK) found that parents with children in state maintained schools spent on average £337 per year on school uniform for each secondary school child and £315 per year for each primary school child. On average, these costs are more than three times what parents think is a reasonable cost for primary (£85) and secondary (£105) uniform.

Many families struggle to pay these high costs, which in turn has negative impacts on children: our survey showed that nearly a quarter (23%) of parents said that the cost of school uniform had meant their child had worn ill-fitting, unclean or incorrect uniform. Wearing the wrong uniform can lead to children being bullied, feeling left out or even being excluded from school, through no fault of their own. We estimate that nearly half a million children have been sent home from school because the costs meant they were wearing incorrect uniform.

The right uniform policy, that puts affordability and best value at its core, has the potential to make lives easier for both children and parents. Yet one in eight families reported they had cut back on food and other essentials because of uniform costs. Our research also found that for low income families, these impacts were greater, with more than one in five such families reporting cutting back on food and other basics to pay for uniform.

Many schools also require certain items to be branded or be bought from specific suppliers. Our data showed that two thirds of parents with children in secondary schools had to buy two or more items from a specific supplier, while more than half of primary school parents had to buy two or more items from a specific supplier. Where parents had to buy two or more items from a specified supplier, the average cost of primary school uniform was around 50% more expensive.

Guidance to schools on how to set school uniform policy is clear that cost should be a top priority, noting that: “When considering how the school uniform should be sourced, governing bodies should give highest priority 

to the consideration of cost and value for money for parents.” However, this guidance is not legally binding. The Education (Guidance about costs of school uniform) Bill, seeks to rectify this by enabling the introduction of statutory guidance to address the costs of school uniforms.

The Children’s Society have played a leading role in campaigning for affordable school uniforms for many years. In October 2014, an inquiry supported by The Children’s Society, and led by young people involved in The Children’s Commission on Poverty (CCP) into the cost of schooling, found for the first time that for too many children the cost of school uniform has a real impact on their lives and their ability to make the most of their education. The Children’s Society have since published the 2015 and 2018 iterations of the Wrong Blazer report. Drawing on new survey data, this briefing highlights the issues facing parents struggling to afford school uniform and outlines recommendations for policy action.

Key Findings

How much do families pay for school uniforms?

Overall, parents with children in state maintained schools told us that they spent £337 per year on school uniform costs for each secondary school child and £315 per year for each primary school child. 

We also asked parents how much they pay on average for different items of school uniform. As with 2018 results, coats and bags, and school shoes were the most expensive items for both primary and secondary school. Of other items of clothing, blazers were notably expensive, with secondary school parents paying an average of £41 per child for blazers for their secondary school children. The below table shows the average cost of uniform for secondary school. 

Many schools require certain items to be branded or be bought from specific shops. Our data showed that two thirds of parents (66%) with children in secondary schools had to buy two or more items from a specific supplier, while more than half of primary school parents (52%) had to buy two or more items from a specific shop. Furthermore, only one in five parents of children in secondary school (18%) and one in four parents of a child in primary school (24%) could buy all of their uniform from any shop.

Where parents had to buy two or more items from specific shops, the average cost of a primary school uniform was around 50% more expensive (£248 average cost when fewer than two items came from a specialist supplier, compared with £375). For secondary schools where parents have to buy two or more items of school uniform from a specific supplier, costs were an average of £75 per year higher. 

How much did families think was a reasonable amount to pay for school uniform?

The Children’s Society’s 2020 survey found that parents with children in state maintained schools spent on average £337 per year on school uniform for each secondary school child, though they believed a reasonable cost is closer to £105. Primary school parents thought £85 was a reasonable cost, though the actual average cost is £315. On average, actual costs are more than three times what parents think is reasonable. 

The prohibitively high cost of school uniforms is having a serious impact on children and their ability to make the most of their education. Our survey showed that nearly a quarter (23%) of parents said that the cost of school uniform had meant their child had worn ill-fitting, unclean or incorrect uniform. Based on the number of children in state maintained schools in England (8.1 million), we estimate that this refers to more than 1.8 million children. Wearing the wrong uniform can lead to children being bullied, feeling left out or even being sent home from school: we estimate that nearly half a million children have been sent home from school for wearing incorrect uniform because their families could not afford the correct uniform. 

“My oldest daughter, they sent her home and said she wasn’t allowed to come back until she had the correct shoes. So then I had to write a letter to say that we’ll be able to get some in a week or so, I didn’t have any money.” - Parent

Furthermore, uniform costs continue to have an impact on family finances. One in eight families reported they had cut back on food and other essentials because of uniform costs, which we estimate affects more than one million families. One in 10 families also reported getting into debt trying to pay for uniform costs. Overall, 43% of parents said the cost of school uniform alone had affected their families in some way.

Based on responses to our survey, we estimate that for around half a million parents, the price of school uniform alone had an impact on what school they chose to send their child. This is particularly worrying given that the Schools Admission Code (statutory) guidance states that school uniform policies must not discourage parents from applying for a place. 

The proportion of parents saying that their child had been sent home from school for wearing incorrect uniform because of cost and those saying the cost uniform influenced their choice of school are in line with our findings in 2018, showing how unnecessarily high costs of uniform continue to have a negative impact on children’s experience of and access to school.

Our research also found that for low income families, these impacts were greater. More than one in five families from lower income backgrounds reported cutting back on food and other essentials because of school uniform costs (compared to one in nine families with higher incomes), highlighting how uniform costs have a disproportionate impact on those children and families already facing financial barriers. Nearly one in five parents from low income households also reported borrowing money from someone else because of high uniform costs, compared with around one in 13 families with higher incomes.

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If you'd like to learn more about our methodology and recommendations, you can download the full report