The Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill is a House of Commons private member’s bill introduced by Mike Amesbury (Labour MP for Weaver Vale). The bill has government support. It was introduced in the House of Commons on 5 February 2020 and completed its stages on 12 March 2021.
The bill would require the Government to issue statutory guidance on the cost aspects of schools’ uniform policies. It would apply to relevant state-funded schools in England.
It is due to have its second reading in the House of Lords on 19 March 2021. It is being sponsored in the House of Lords by Baroness Lister of Burtersett (Labour).
What is the current situation?
School uniform policy, including its cost, is a matter for a school’s governing body or academy trust.
The Department for Education has published non-statutory guidance on school uniform, which was last updated in 2013. The guidance stresses the importance of cost considerations, saying that governing bodies should give the “highest priority” to the cost of uniforms; it explains:
The School Admissions Code 2012, which is statutory guidance, states “Admission authorities must ensure that […] policies around school uniform or school trips do not discourage parents from applying for a place for their child.” No school uniform should be so expensive as to leave pupils or their families feeling unable to apply to, or attend, a school of their choice, due to the cost of the uniform. School governing bodies should therefore give high priority to cost considerations. The governing body should be able to demonstrate how best value has been achieved and keep the cost of supplying the uniform under review.
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. The school uniform should be easily available for parents to purchase and schools should seek to select items that can be purchased cheaply, for example in a supermarket or other good value shop. Schools should keep compulsory branded items to a minimum and avoid specifying expensive items of uniform eg expensive outdoor coats.
The guidance also said that governing bodies should be able to show they obtained best value for money from suppliers and that local authorities or academies may choose to supply school clothing grants for those that need it.
The bill’s explanatory notes highlighted that in 2015 the Department for Education made a commitment to make the guidance statutory.
Reported cost concerns
The Children’s Society charity has published several reports on the cost of school uniforms in recent years. It has also worked with the Children’s Commission on Poverty on the matter. The Children’s Society latest survey of around 1,000 UK parents, published in March 2020, 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.
The survey found that many families struggled with these costs, and that it could negatively affect children. The Children’s Society said:
Nearly a quarter of parents (23%) 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.
Overall, the Children’s Society believed school uniforms “play a vital part in contributing to the ethos of a school, particularly in ‘poverty-proofing’ classrooms from the demands of latest trends”. However, it said that “needlessly high costs” undermine this and instead place an unnecessary burden on parents and children.
In July 2019, the then chair of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Frank Field (now Lord Field of Birkenhead) wrote to the Government about the matter. The letter said that parents had reported that school uniform costs could run into “hundreds of pounds” and were worsening families’ financial difficulties. The committee noted that the Welsh Government had already published statutory guidance on the matter.
What does the bill do?
The bill has one substantive clause. It would require the secretary of state to issue statutory guidance about the costs aspects of school uniform policies. This guidance would be for the appropriate authorities (eg the governing bodies or proprietors) of relevant schools in England. Relevant schools include academies, maintained schools, non-maintained special schools and pupil referral units. The authority must consider the guidance when developing and implementing a school uniform policy for the school.
The bill’s explanatory notes explains that the term ‘costs aspects’ should be considered broadly, and would include any aspect of school uniform policies that the secretary of state believes to be relevant to those costs. The secretary of state would also have the power to revise the guidance.
The legislation would come into force two months after royal assent.
What happened in the House of Commons?
The bill received its second reading in the House of Commons on 13 March 2020.
Introducing the bill, Mike Amesbury described it as a “genuine opportunity to put words into action, to change the law and to make school uniforms more affordable for families struggling with often very high and prohibitive costs”. He explained that some schools appeared to be ignoring the non-statutory guidance that had been published, and it was therefore important to make the guidance statutory. He noted that the bill had government and cross-party support.
The Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, emphasised the Government’s support for the bill. He also stressed the importance of school uniforms and the need for them to be affordable to all families:
School uniforms play a vital role in school communities and are deeply valued by parents and pupils alike. We want uniforms to continue to be held in positive esteem by families, so that the benefits outweigh the costs for families. The bill ensures that families will not have to worry about an excessively priced school blazer or forgo sending their child to a school for fear of an expensive PE kit. Fundamentally, we want to secure the best value for families and to do so by introducing statutory guidance.
Committee stage and report stage
No amendments to the bill were considered during Commons committee stage on 16 September 2020. The bill passed committee stage without a vote.
Report stage was held on 12 March 2021. Amendments were tabled and discussed, but none of these were approved or moved to a vote. They were all tabled by the backbench Conservative MPs Sir Christopher Chope, Peter Bone and Philip Davies. The proposed amendments included that:
- The guidance must be issued within six months of the legislation coming into force.
- The guidance should require consideration of quality, design, place of manufacture and country of origin, as well as price.
- There should be guidance on establishing a hardship fund and ensuring there is a second-hand market for uniforms (if these are provided by a single supplier) to help families who may struggle with costs.
- The guidance, when issued, should not be revised for at least five years.
- There should be consultation with representatives such as the National Governors Association and the Parent Teacher Association UK before issuing guidance.
Mike Amesbury described the amendments as useful grounds for discussion about the bill. However, he believed some went beyond the scope of the bill and he did not look to push the House or the Government to take any forward.
Opposing the amendments, Nick Gibb stressed the importance of granting the Government as much flexibility as possible for drafting the guidance. He said that it was important that the issues raised were therefore considered in the statutory guidance rather than in primary legislation. He also said that the Government should not be constrained by time limits for implementing it and revising it; however, he did say that the draft statutory guidance is “progressing well”. Finally, he rejected calls for including a specific list of bodies to consult within the legislation but did commit to engaging with representatives when drafting the guidance.
Sir Christopher Chope asked when the Government would be able to publish the guidance and whether a draft of it may be available for consideration during the House of Lords debates on the bill. He said that this would be useful for scrutinising the Government’s approach.
Nick Gibb said that all the comments made during the debates would be borne in mind during the drafting of the guidance but that the Government did not want to delay the bill’s progress in the House of Lords while waiting for it to be finalised. He said it was important to get the bill finished before the session ends.
Speaking at third reading on 12 March 2021, Mike Amesbury thanked the Government and the House for supporting the bill. He wanted all families to benefit from it and hoped the guidance would be issued quickly.
Nick Gibb took the opportunity to address some of the issues that the Government proposed to cover in the guidance, including questions about branded items, sole supplier arrangements and second-hand uniform availability:
In developing and implementing their school uniform policy, schools should consider the total cost of all items of uniform or clothing that parents will need to provide while the pupil is at the school.
On the question of branded items, the current non-statutory guidance states that compulsory branded items should be kept to a minimum. We plan to keep that approach in the statutory guidance and, additionally, specify that their use should be limited to low-cost or long-lasting items. We will provide guidance about ways to reap the benefits of a branded item while also keeping costs low. The Government believe that this approach will set a clear expectation on schools not to overuse branded items, while allowing schools to take sensible decisions in their own contexts.
On sole-supplier arrangements, schools should be able to demonstrate that they have obtained best value for money in their supply arrangements, but we do not intend to ban sole-supplier contracts. To ensure that there is competition and transparency, we want schools to tender their school uniform contracts regularly—at least every five years. To support schools to carry out good tenders, we will provide information on the key areas to consider when tendering their uniform contracts. The bill will not punish good suppliers; far from it. Their emphasis on quality and value for money will be rewarded as standards across the industry increase due to competition.
I believe that second-hand uniform can play a valuable role in keeping costs reasonable for all parents, and I know that many members share that view. I would like every school to ensure that arrangements are in place to make second-hand school uniform available for parents to acquire.
Finally, the minister said that the guidance would set out timescales for schools to implement the guidance, but that schools will not have to make sudden changes to uniform policy for September 2021.
The bill passed third reading without a vote.
- House of Commons Library, Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill 2019–20, 15 March 2021
- BBC News, ‘School uniforms: MPs back law aiming to cut costs’, 13 March 2021
- House of Commons Library, School Uniform Costs in England, 17 December 2019
Cover image from gov.uk.