It is time for statutory guidance to tackle the prohibitive cost of school uniforms
While the government heralds their ‘School Uniform Grant’, it is for cash-strapped local authorities to decide what they offer, writes Labour MP Lisa Forbes.
How is it acceptable or fair that a school uniform can cost hundreds of pounds?
This is what parents asked me time and again during my by-election campaign this summer. In one recent case in Peterborough, adding a logo to the school’s trousers has increased the cost by 75%.
Since being elected, I have fought for statutory guidance on school uniform costs, so that parents already living on the breadline are not burdened with another bill they can ill afford.
It is four years since the then Chancellor promised to tackle spiralling uniform costs by issuing this guidance, and Ministers have told me recently that they were still waiting for a ‘suitable legislative opportunity’ to enact this. However, there was no sign of such a Bill in Monday’s cynical Queen’s Speech.
Research from Buttle UK recently showed that after years of Tory austerity, a huge majority of frontline support workers are seeing more families living in extreme poverty and more parents, who simply want the best possible start in life for their children, tackling mammoth financial pressures.
While the government heralds their ‘School Uniform Grant’ on the Department for Education website, it is for cash-strapped local authorities to decide what they offer, and the government refuses to even collate data on where these grants are provided.
In the face of this government’s ineptitude, I decided to do their job for them by conducting a large scale research project surveying every first-tier local authority in England to assess the availability of this grant.
The stark reality that research exposed is that 80% of councils don’t provide any School Uniform Grant at all, with only 27 out of 150 councils providing any support, and a third of these only in emergency situations such as fires, floods or extreme poverty. Despite being advertised as nationally available by the government, only three councils in Britain now offer a grant to low-income children in all school years and in all situations.
But how much are the councils to blame? There are a few which scrapped the Grant voluntarily, as Peterborough’s Conservative administration did in 2008. But my research found that the scheme’s retreat largely came in recent years, driven by central government cuts since 2010. It is no surprise that when councils have lost 60p in the pound in funding, they have been forced to scale back.
The Grant was intended as a lifeline for struggling families up and down the country, but despite more and more families living precariously, the number of grants issued has fallen by 71% since 2010. No wonder the government did not want to conduct this research when it shows that Tory cuts have left the vast majority of parents without the financial support they need and deserve.
According to the Children’s Society, nearly two million children currently go to school in badly-fitting, unclean, or incorrect clothing, while one in ten families reported getting into debt over school clothes.
Simply put, this is not good enough. The government is relying on the generosity of shamefully underfunded schools, many of which have been forced to open up ‘school uniform banks’. They are shirking responsibility and leaving cash-strapped families by the wayside.
The government has failed in two respects. Firstly, they have failed to tackle private sector providers who have a monopoly on school uniforms and are therefore able to exploit parents and raise prices, dragging their feet for four years over statutory guidance on school uniform costs that could guarantee affordability once and for all.
Secondly, during the last nine years of Conservative austerity, parents in Peterborough and across the country have lost a vital lifeline that once existed to help them with those costs.
It is utterly absurd that school uniforms are becoming so cost-prohibitive to many families who struggle to make ends meet, but what is even more absurd is that the government is still showing absolutely no political will to tackle it.
Parents have waited long enough. The research I have conducted should be the wake-up call they need to provide the statutory guidance on uniforms they promised many years ago, and give our councils the funding they need.
Johnson can say that austerity is over as much as he wants, but parents know he is dealing in rhetoric not reality.
It is time that this government for once gave us deeds, not words.
Lisa Forbes is the Labour MP for Peterborough.