Why NI’s entire approach to school uniforms should change

28 Oct 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 28 Oct 2021

Photo by Robin Worrall on Unsplash
Photo by Robin Worrall on Unsplash

Northern Ireland has no limit for the prices of its school uniforms. Costs are far beyond what parents consider reasonable, and should be reduced. A complete reform of what children wear should also be considered.

 

Parents of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland are hugely worried about how much they pay for school uniforms – with the average cost per child three times as much as people consider reasonable.

New research from the Parent Engagement Group (PEG) found that 94% of parents are concerned at uniforms’ prices.

PEG – which has polled almost 1,500 NI parents and guardians since August – found that 73% think purchasing uniforms that meet the requirements of schools placed financial pressure on their family, with 75% of those respondents adding that the financial pressure had impacted their health and wellbeing.

The Department of Education (DE) provides guidance to schools on keeping uniform costs down, but this is non-statutory and therefore non-binding. This means the uniform policy for individual schools is more or less a matter for their boards of governors.

In general, parents have to pay up significant sums – over £300 per child, on average – to meet all the criteria for both a day-to-day uniform and PE kit.

According to PEG: “The Parent Engagement Group research found the average cost in Northern Ireland of a primary school uniform was £173 and post primary £378. Similar research carried out by The Children’s Society in 2020 found the average spend for a post primary pupil was £337 and £315 for a primary school pupil. These figures are three times what parents think is reasonable - £85 for primary school children and £105 for post primary.

“In particular, we are concerned about the cost of branded items, the use of limited suppliers, thus limited choice and driving up price, use of non-high street options, as well as badges and embroidered items (such as blazers and sports kit). The Children’s society research found that where branded items or specific suppliers were stipulated by a school, this increased costs by an average of 50%. In Northern Ireland, branded items are now the norm and most schools require bespoke blazers from limited suppliers, increasing costs.

“Research Commissioned by the Irish League of Credit Unions in 2020 found that one third of parents are plunged into debt each year when buying school uniforms. The average debt encountered by parents when buying uniform was £222. That was a £30 increase on the average debt from 2019.

“If parents are falling into significant debt year-on-year to buy school uniforms, it is clear that the current system of voluntary guidance is not working.”

Northern Ireland already has a school uniform grant which is accessible by low-income families to offer them some support. However, the size of the grant (£35.75 for primary school children, and around £75 for post-primary) is far smaller than similar schemes in the rest of the UK and Ireland (where, broadly, grants are two are three times higher than in NI).

PEG’s report has already received endorsement from several politicians, while this general issue is already being widely discussed at Stormont – meaning all sorts of change is possible.

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has answered several official questions about this matter. She has highlighted that the existing uniform grant exists while also acknowledging that change is required. She said that preparation has begun on a review of the free school meals (FSM) and uniform grant eligibility criteria, and that this review will look at the size of the current grants.

However, this is an internal review rather than an independent appraisal (which is one of PEG’s recommendations). And, most interestingly of all, PEG’s report says that policymakers should look at fundamental changes about what a standard school uniform should actually be.

Style and substance

In theory, school uniforms play an important role in putting all children on a level social playing field.

For instance, they should eliminate any possible friction or negative behaviour based on a sense of fashion, or on the price of clothes a given pupil’s family is able to afford.

Indeed, the Department of Education’s own school uniform policy guidance makes this point, stating: “The school uniform can play a valuable role by: setting an appropriate tone; instilling pride; supporting positive behaviour and discipline; encouraging identity with, and support for, the school ethos; ensuring pupils of all races and backgrounds feel welcome; protecting children from social pressures to dress in a particular way; and, nurturing cohesion and promoting good relations between different groups of pupils.”

PEG, however, makes the point that the high costs of uniforms can completely undermine these aims.

“The prohibitive nature of school uniform policy can result in punitive or exclusionary measures. According to The Children’s Society (2020), ‘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’.

“They estimate that nearly half a million children in England have been sent home from school because the costs meant they were wearing incorrect uniform – comparative figures for Northern Ireland are unknown… It could be argued that the intended equalising outcome is lost with current restrictive uniform policies.”

PEG also says that the style of NI’s uniforms has not changed in a lifetime and that a more relaxed standard uniform might be both less costly and also have other benefits.

The report says: “The current norms of school uniform can disadvantage some young people, particularly female students, transgender and gender nonconforming pupils. For many students the school uniform is uncomfortable, restrictive and out of date.

“A study in Australia which looked at girls’ physical participation in school found that girls who wear active wear for school uniform are more likely to participate in physical activity and be more comfortable in their learning environment. It was noted that a more relaxed uniform that did not restrict movement (such as hoody and tracksuit) encouraged participation and allowed pupils to be more active. There was no noted drop in behaviour or academic participation.”

Recommendations

Other parts of the UK have made progress on this issue in recent years.

In 2019, Wales became the first part of the UK to introduce statutory guidance for schools, meaning headteachers and governing bodies must have regards to governmental advice when setting uniform policy.

This advice requires them to give high priority to affordability, including measures that mean clothes can be purchased from several different providers to avoid a monopoly or anything like it.

In England, The Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Act 2021 introduced a specific requirement for statutory guidance to be issued for school uniforms, although this relates solely to the issue cost.

PEG is calling on the Education Minister “to immediately establish an Independent Ministerial Advisory Group on School Uniforms” that should:

  1. Recommend bespoke legislation for Northern Ireland that draws on the legislative experience of other parts of these islands, placing uniform guidance on a meaningful statutory footing. The recommendations should consider, but not be limited to, considering a legislative uniform cost cap, as well as legislating for any recommendations made under consideration 2.
  2. Review DE non-statutory guidance for school uniforms and make recommendation on what is appropriate clothing for schools to adopt. The group should make recommendations on what constitutes appropriate uniform for today’s schooling environment, taking into account issues of gender, branding, affordability and practicality.
  3. Consider the current school uniform grant and review the level of grant payable in Northern Ireland, compared to other parts of the UK and Ireland and make recommendations to the Minister on an appropriate grant payment in Northern Ireland. This should include a review of the threshold at which any grant is paid. The uniform grant should be comprised in the statutory guidance.

PEG’s paper makes its case well. The report’s starting point was clearly a reduction in financial pressures on parents, while ensuring that no pupil feels isolated because their family is struggling to tick every box on a school’s list of criteria for uniforms.

This is important, and significant progress should be achievable by Stormont, given that it can go some way to reducing costs without dipping into the public purse at all, by way of price caps.

However, based on the research, recommendation 2 is perhaps the most interesting request from PEG.

Do local schoolkids need to wear blazers, smart trousers or skirts, and traditional leather shoes? Or is the only reason this keeps happening is that things have been this way since the 1950s and no-one has sought to change it?

Why shouldn’t children be more comfortable? Adults certainly are. Many office-based workplaces and industries have moved away from the previous, more formal orthodoxy.

All the merits of uniforms could be matched by something cheaper, and more relaxed and, with the research from Australia in mind, this could increase physical activity, in particular among girls.

Uniform grants are obviously useful. Given the sky-high costs, there is certainly an argument for price caps. But perhaps it is also time for fundamental changes in what local children wear to school. A hoody won’t make anyone worse at maths.

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