As families get poorer, the government must not block measures to make uniforms more affordable
Being able to afford uniforms is becoming harder every year, writes Mike Amesbury MP. | PA Images
When many families are spending lockdowns worried about their finances, why should the cost of uniforms add to their list of concerns?
This pandemic has brought hardship on so many over this past year, but it has also cruelly exposed the many fault lines running through our society. One thing it has made clear is that many of our school children come from families for whom hardship and poverty is an everyday struggle.
Those families who were already struggling before Covid have often found life under lockdown harder than most. Before the pandemic, 13% of low-income families told the Child Poverty Action Group they were finding things difficult financially – that’s now risen to 76%.
We know the health risks and economic hardships of Covid are far from over. When many families are spending lockdowns worried about their finances, why should the cost of uniforms add to their list of concerns?
As my Private Members’ Bill has made its way through Parliament – the Education (Guidance about Cost of School Uniforms) Bill – seeking to make uniforms more affordable by creating new statutory guidance for schools, I’ve spoken to charities, schools and families across the country, and it’s clear that being able to afford uniforms is becoming harder every year.
I do want to make something clear: I am pro-uniform and so is this Bill. I believe they remove the pressure on children of having to keep up with the latest fashions and encourage a sense of school pride. But too many schools are needlessly applying high prices.
I’ve been shocked to learn just how many items are required to be bespoke in some schools. It goes far beyond blazers and ties: some mandate customised PE kits and even logoed drama socks.
Families that try to make do and mend or buy uniforms from cheaper places can face bullying, or even be penalised by their school
Often, the school will have an exclusive agreement with one provider, a monopoly that essentially allows them to set the price as high as they want.
To me this undermines one of the key aims of uniform – to remove the peer pressure of having to have the “right”, often expensive, clothes. Families that try to make do and mend – or buy uniforms from cheaper places – can face bullying or even be penalised by their school.
Reducing the cost of uniforms is a cross-party issue. MPs from across the House have given their support, and crucially the Bill has secured government backing. I’ve worked closely with the schools minister and The Children’s Society to ensure that measures in the new guidance would prevent the issues families have raised with me most often.
Friday 29 January would have seen the next stage in the passage of the Bill. However, because Friday sittings have been repeatedly cancelled, its progress has stalled, despite being first in the ballot.
Although some children haven’t had much wear out of their uniforms lately, I’ve still had emails from across the country proving that, despite all the many worries for parents at this difficult time, the cost of school uniforms is still one of them.
But despite widespread support for the Bill, it will fall at the end of this session if something isn’t done. With the new Parliamentary session expected to begin within months, time is running out.
It isn’t Parliamentary procedure that’s standing in the Bill’s way – but political will. The government has many tools at its disposal to make sure it can continue its journey if it wishes, from allowing it to be heard during government time, to carrying it over to the next session. We’ve seen over the last year just how much Parliament can adapt in order to let our democracy continue to support our constituents.
The Children’s Society is encouraging their supporters to write to Jacob Rees-Mogg to ensure the Bill isn’t pushed off the table. I call upon Members from across the House to do the same, and to make a real difference to the lives of families in their constituency.
Mike Amesbury is the Labour MP for Weaver Vale.