The Talking Point #24: Counting the cost of school uniforms

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One story you might have missed amidst the furore over the Second Severn Crossing name change and Rod Liddle was the Welsh Government’s decision – via Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor) – to scrap a £700,000-a-year school uniform grant.

That isn’t “whataboutism” with regard the other two stories as they’re important for different reasons, but it’s probably harder for people to get as excited about a cut to what appears to be a fairly minor bit of public spending.

The grant – worth up to £105 per child – was available for Year 7 pupils (including special needs) who were also eligible to receive free school meals. The reported justification for ditching it was that the cost of uniforms “had fallen”.

The Bevan Foundation described the cuts as “mealy-mouthed” and called for schools to use sew-on badges that can be used on cheaper clothing.

School uniforms make sense. Ensuring every pupil wears the same thing instills discipline (as long as the rules aren’t over-the-top) and prevents a fashion arms race, which could leave those from deprived backgrounds either spending an unwarranted sum of money trying to keep up, or left to be ridiculed (because you know how kids are). You can see a class divide at every non-uniform day.

When I went to school in the 1990s and early 2000s, usually the only school-specific items you had to have were a tie and outdoors PE top – everything else you could shop around for as long as it was the right colour.

Now, however, schools often require pupils to wear clothing with an embroidered school badge or emblem which, in some cases, means buying them from a preferred group of suppliers (which effectively trademarks them).

If you want an example, there’s no better one than my old secondary school, Brynteg School; formerly Brynteg Comprehensive (but they don’t like calling themselves that anymore).

Brynteg has always been strict when it comes to enforcing uniform rules.

In September 2017, the school made blazers compulsory following a poll of pupils and parents which resulted in a narrow 51% vote in favour. The blazers come in different colours for sixth formers and the rest. Pupils also have the option of wearing polo shirts in the summer (again different colours for sixth formers and everyone else). Sew-on badges are available if you get special permission, though I assume that might mark a pupil out and I doubt it’s a popular option.

Based on prices at a popular local schoolwear store, to meet the school’s uniform and PE kit requirements (including a coat), I worked out that parents would have to pay at least £110. That doesn’t include the cost of shoes, PE shoes/trainers and having the correct bag.

The blazer alone costs £28.99, rising to £34.99 for bigger children.

So that’s £110+ per child, with the prospect that several items will need to be replaced annually (or more often) as children grow.

I don’t need to spell out the impact this will have had on lower-income families (Brynteg’s catchment area includes Wildmill, Waunscil Avenue and Brackla Meadows – for the unfamiliar, they all rank towards the bottom on deprivation indices).

For a family receiving benefits or locked into low-paid work, £110+ (maybe up to £300+ for multiple children) will eat up several weeks worth of discretionary spending, so the uniform grant – even if it’s only for Year 7 pupils – will have helped.

Sorry Kirsty, uniforms ARE NOT getting cheaper. And families have to spend the money, or the kids get into trouble.

That’s just one school in one town, replicate it across Wales and this relatively minor budget change could well have made lives a bit worse for scores of families.

New guidance has reportedly been issued to schools in order to keep uniform costs down and there are discussions taking place on a successor grant scheme (mentioned at this week’s FMQs) – but let’s see how many schools actually pay attention to the guidance. At the rate things are going, pupils will be wearing caps next.

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