The cost of school uniform and ‘dress-up’ days is harming the education of poorer children
Children from low-income households should not have to face the stigma and embarrassment caused by zealously enforced school dress codes, writes Emma Hardy MP
For many parents a school dress-up day is just one of life’s inconveniences, involving a last-minute search to find a costume. But evidence has emerged that the growing trend of schools to increase the number of dress-up days is harming the education of our most disadvantaged children through an increase in unauthorised absences.
Analysis by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) showed a significant increase in unauthorised absences on 14 December – ‘Christmas Jumper Day’. Unauthorised absences among pupils regarded as disadvantaged in the schools studied showed it was nearly three times higher than a typical day. For those regarded as without disadvantage it was still nearly twice as high.
Increasing numbers of people are struggling to meet the basic costs of living, with the knock-on effect being a rise in child poverty. The ASCL study has unearthed an unintended consequence of what most would imagine to be a fun day because the scale of poverty among our children and the shame that brings remains largely unacknowledged.
When it comes to school uniforms, a recent Children’s Society report found evidence that the families of one million children across England are taking on debt to meet the rising cost – a figure that has nearly doubled since the previous survey in 2015.
They found the pressure was exacerbated where schools forced parents to buy from a single supplier, where yearly costs were on average £71 per year higher for secondary school children and £77 higher for primary school children. The report also estimated that over half a million children were sent home for wearing non-approved items, which went as far as wearing the ‘wrong’ socks.
There is no evidence that a school uniform improves educational outcomes. Yet we have a ludicrous situation where individual schools’ policies and Government inaction are exacerbating the difficulties already faced by our most disadvantaged children.
Responsibility for remedying this situation needs to be taken by all parties. Following a campaign to reduce the number of branded items insisted on by schools, the National Governors’ Association has updated its guidance on uniform policy, saying: “schools must avoid creating difficulties for the families of children from poorer backgrounds”.
The Government needs to create statutory guidance to instruct schools to keep the costs as low as possible and prevent the additional costs associated with single suppliers. Unlike Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there are no school uniform grants available in England. Instead, any assistance for school uniform costs is reliant on individual school and local authority policies. If the DfE believes uniforms play an important part in educational achievement it should address this imbalance immediately.
There should be flex in school uniform policy to ensure it does not unfairly discriminate against children from disadvantaged backgrounds. And schools need to consider the impact of dress-up days. Governors should be supported in calculating the average cost of these days and use their influence to drive the cost down.
We already know that the disadvantage gap is widening the disparity of outcomes in our education system and a recent publication from the Education Policy Institute stated: “Without a marked improvement, it would take us until almost 2070 before disadvantaged children did not fall further behind other students during their time in education.”
The DfE continues to spend money on campaigns to improve school attendance, and Ofsted maintains that regular school attendance improves achievement. Whatever improvements are made regarding school uniforms, unless we address the elephant in the room – the increasing number of children living in poverty and a dwindling access to support – then our children will never have the equality of opportunity they all deserve.
Emma Hardy is Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle