Campaigner of the Week: Mike Amesbury MP
Mike Amesbury MP talks to Georgina Bailey about his PMB for affordable school uniforms
Mike Amesbury, Labour MP for Weaver Vale
Amesbury was lucky enough to be drawn top of the Private Member’s Bill ballot – after some convincing from his staff to enter – and following the most recent PMQs, he presented his Bill titled ‘Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms)’. The Bill, which has Government backing and could become law this Spring, aims to introduce a statutory requirement for schools and governors to prioritise affordability when setting their uniform policy.
Amesbury is quick to stress that he is “not anti-uniform”; if done properly, he believes school uniforms “can act as a leveller”. However, the Bill seeks to end “monopolies” where schools have exclusive relationships with one supplier, which Amesbury and campaigners say leads to spiralling costs. Schools would be able to specify items – for example, requiring a blue jumper, perhaps with a school badge sewn on, white shirt and grey trousers – but not the brand or supplier. “There are plenty of supermarkets and other retailers that offer cheap but quality items of clothing which will make up a school uniform… This will bring down costs considerably.”
Amesbury was “quite excited really” when he found out he’d come top in the draw. “I was slightly nervous like, ‘Oh, what does this really entail?’ And then was quickly bombarded with requests from really worthy causes.”
However, it was the information from The Children’s Society’s 2018 report The Wrong Blazer that stood out for the Weaver Vale MP. On average a school uniform in the UK costs £340 for a state secondary – and £255 for a state primary school. This is an issue that cuts across all constituencies, and Amesbury can reel off stories from parents around the country about extortionate costs: “There are over a million children going to school with ill-fitting uniforms… One school has branded socks… There’s another school where it has a uniform for each year group.”
These high costs are impacting school choice for some families: “That’s wrong, it should be about the locality of the local community school,” Amesbury says. Additionally uniform issues can lead to poor attendance – and even temporary exclusions or suspensions.
“My key concern and, most importantly, the concern of parents and carers and grandparents and teachers and teaching staff is to bring the cost down.”
Amesbury has already secured the support of both Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, and schools minister Nick Gibb – while we’re speaking, his office receives confirmation that they are over the threshold for MPs across the House who will support the Bill.
He admits that his journey to cross-party support on this topic might have been a bit of a foregone conclusion, however: “The Government has been on side since 2015 – I think George Osborne made a statement that they were minded to legislate… of course that didn’t happen. And just before the general election, the current secretary of state for education said a similar thing. Well, here’s an opportunity to work together… to keep pushing on this issue.”
The cross-cutting nature of this issue has also made it easier to build parliamentary support (even an SNP MP offered their backing, although education is a devolved issue). “It would benefit so many children and families, particularly those most in need,” he says. The north-western MP also made his debut appearance on both BBC Radio Norfolk and Kent the morning before we meet: “So right throughout the country this is this is an issue.”
After being presented, the next stage of the Bill will be its second reading on Friday 13 March (“Unlucky for some,” Amesbury laughs). Does he have any concerns about parliamentary process and anti-PMB sentiments being used to block the Bill?
“I sincerely hope it doesn’t. This is about doing the right thing. And of course, the current government, which has quite a large majority now after the general election, has said right from 2015 until very, very recently that it intends to do this. So, I with others, am giving it the opportunity to do the right thing by parents and families.”