23 Aug 2018

One million children live in families across England who are getting into debt to meet the rising cost of school uniforms – a new study by The Children’s Society has found. 

This is based on responses to a new survey by The Children’s Society, which found that 13% of parents were getting into debt to cover costs of school uniform - up from 7% when the charity conducted the same survey in 2015.

According to responses from 1,000 parents, nearly one in six families said school uniform costs were to blame for them having to cut back on food and other basic essentials compared to one in seven in 2015.

The report, The Wrong Blazer 2018: Time for action on school uniform costs, an update of The Children’s Society’s survey from 2015, reveals families are shelling out more on school uniforms with an average of £340 per year for each child at secondary school – an increase of 7% or £24 since 2015. Parents of primary school children spent on average £255, an increase of 2% since 2015.

The government pledged three years ago to clamp down on school uniform costs, to make it a legal requirement for schools to put value for money as the top consideration when sourcing school uniforms, but has yet to do so.

The high cost of uniforms can be put down in part to school policies that make parents buy clothing from specialist shops rather than giving them the choice of buying items at cheaper stores such as supermarkets or high-street chains. Where parents have to buy two or more items of school uniform from a specific supplier, spending was found to be an average of £71 per year higher for secondary school children and £77 higher for primary school children.

For children themselves, the cost of school uniform can have a serious impact. Around one in 10 parents said it had led to their child wearing uniform that didn’t fit properly, and more than one in 20 said that their child had been sent home for wearing the wrong clothes or shoes as a result of them struggling to afford the cost.

Based on these results and Department for Education statistics on numbers of children in primary and secondary schools across England, it’s estimated that around 1.7 million children go to school wearing incorrect, unclean or ill-fitting uniform and half a million children have been sent home because of wearing the wrong items.

The report finds that parents of secondary age children pay the most for different items of clothing with coats and bags the most expensive items, both costing £57 annually for each child. They are followed by school shoes averaging at £48 each per year and blazers at £39.  PE kits and trousers, skirts and dresses are also expensive with an average price tag of £41 for secondary school pupils.

These figures are staggering when compared to the amount parents feel is reasonable to spend on uniforms in total in a year. Parents of both primary and secondary school children felt on average that they were paying around three times too much. The survey found parents of children at primaries pay £174 more than at the £81 that they feel would be reasonable to pay and parents of children and secondary schools pay £225 more than the £115 that they feel would be reasonable. 

The research finds school uniform costs are having a greater impact on more families than in 2015.  Whilst much of this may be due to rising costs, The Children’s Society says another major reason is likely to be the squeeze on family incomes caused by reduced financial support – including the current four year freeze on key benefits and tax credits.

The Children’s Society is calling for action from government to act on the pledge they made in 2015 to make guidance on school uniform legally binding, so that cost is always a key priority in setting school uniform policy.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive at The Children’s Society said: “It’s truly shocking that so many families are affected by the excessive and unaffordable price tag on school uniforms, forcing thousands to cut back on food and heating or having to borrow money to cover the costs. It’s also damaging children’s wellbeing and in many cases, getting in the way of their education.

“Too many parents still face having to buy a number of items from specialist suppliers, when they could pick up similar items at cheaper stores and supermarkets. We want the government fulfil the commitment it made in 2015 and enforce legally binding rules which ensure that schools make the cost to families a top priority in setting school uniform policy.  This change would potentially save families hundreds of millions of pounds, without costing the government a penny.

“We also want the government to end the freeze on key benefits and tax credits for families with children which is making it increasingly hard for those on a low income to make ends meet.” 

Notes to editors

  • Results are based on a survey of 1,004 parents of school age children in August 2018 across the UK about the costs of school uniforms. This survey was carried out by Opinium Research. In all cases parents saying their oldest child attended an independent school were excluded from the analysis.
  • The national estimates for the total number of children who may have been affected by debt are calculated by applying the proportion (13%) of parents who responded to the survey to say that the cost of school uniform resulted in debt, to the 8 million children attending state maintained schools in England (making 1 million children in total) 
  • Numbers of children attending state maintained schools across England are calculated using Department for Education figures - Schools, pupils and their characteristics: January 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-charac... (accessed 13 August 2018). The same approach is taken for calculating the overall numbers of children impacted by other issues related to uniform costs.
  • The Children’s Society is a national charity that works with the most vulnerable children and young people in Britain today. We listen. We support. We act. Because no child should feel alone.