Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for International Trade

Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

Baroness Berridge Excerpts
Baroness Berridge Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for International Trade (Baroness Berridge) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister of Burtersett, for introducing this Bill and all noble Lords for their contributions today. I also congratulate the honourable Member for Weaver Vale for getting this Bill through the other place unscathed.

The Government encourage schools to have a uniform because of how it can contribute to the ethos of a school and create a common identity among pupils. As many noble Lords have said, it is a social leveller. I must therefore disagree with the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty. I happened to be out on the street when the Grey Coat Hospital secondary school was dispersing, and you just could not tell who was from what background because they were all in that distinctive grey uniform.

The Bill will reinforce the role of school uniform while reducing the cost to parents, which is a key point that the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, outlined. I know that noble Lords will want to know the intended contents of the statutory guidance and I take this opportunity to set out our proposed approach.

In relation to branded items, which have been the topic of much debate, the Government’s current non-statutory guidance advises that schools should keep such branded items of uniform to a minimum, as multiple branded items can significantly increase costs for parents. We plan to maintain this approach in the statutory guidance and specify additionally that their use should be limited to low-cost or long-lasting items. The guidance will provide information to schools about ways in which they can achieve the benefits of a branded item while keeping the cost to parents low. As the noble Lord, Lord Clark, said, this might involve the use of sew-on or iron-on logos, among other approaches, which was also mentioned by my noble friend Lady Gardner.

By taking this approach, we will set a clear expectation that schools should not overuse branded items—I agree with my predecessor, as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, outlined, that this should not be a barrier to access to the best schools for disadvantaged children—while allowing schools to take sensible decisions based on their own individual circumstances. I have become aware, for instance, that some multi-academy trusts, such as Outwood Grange, which have a number of schools across a number of towns, have taken the decision to have the same uniform across all schools in their trust, thereby driving down the price of branded items for parents. In addition, Outwood provides students their first set of uniform for free, to further support parents with the cost of school uniform.

I will address the issue of sole-supplier arrangements, which many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Randall, raised. The department’s current non-statutory guidance recommends that schools avoid exclusive sole-supplier contracts unless a regular competitive tendering process is run, to secure best value for money for parents. To address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, trusts which have done this have been able to secure value, including commitments to avoid excessive price rises. It also helps with the point about stock across the year, which was also made. We intend to maintain this approach in the statutory guidance, while providing further information for schools on how to tender well, which will ensure that there is competition and transparency within schools’ supply arrangements. This approach will not punish good suppliers: their emphasis on quality and value for money will be rewarded as standards across the industry improve; nor will it diminish the value that sole suppliers are able to offer in terms of ensuring year-round supply, allowing the supplier to provide a full range of sizes and securing economies of scale.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, referred to the situation in Wales. The Government’s approach is not to subsidise what can be overpriced uniform. The situation in England is more varied and the statutory guidance will be appropriate for parents and families in England.

Many noble Lords raised the issue of second-hand uniform. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, that statutory guidance will cover the provision of second-hand uniform, which can play a valuable role—an essential role, actually—in keeping the costs of school uniform reasonable for all parents. I would like every school to ensure that arrangements are in place so that second-hand school uniform is available for parents. It was pleasing to hear the examples from the right reverend Prelate of the bespoke second-hand shops and initiatives in the north-east.

My noble friend Lord Trenchard spoke about VAT. Clothing for under-14s is already exempt from VAT, at a cost of around £2 billion a year. There are no plans to extend the VAT exemption to older children. I note with interest the comments of my noble friend Lord Moynihan about the use of technology and the emergence of online second-hand shops.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham raised ethical issues. We want schools to give high priority to cost considerations and value for money, but that does not prevent them taking account of other issues which are important in their local context, such as ethical sourcing. There is a waste resources action plan out of Defra, working with the supermarkets, which many noble Lords have said is where a lot of families get their non-branded items, and there is a voluntary agreement at the moment, called the sustainable clothing action plan, which the Government are supporting.

The noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Bourne, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, mentioned independent schools. In choosing an independent school, parents are making that choice in terms of paying the fees, and school uniform costs are something that they need to take into consideration. I take on board the point made by the noble Baroness in relation to scholarship children, and when I next meet the Independent Schools Council, I will raise this issue of scholarship students.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and others made reference to the behaviour policy and the bullying that can take place. Of course, behaviour and any exclusion decisions are for the school and the governing body, but that is part of Ofsted’s inspection regime so, in that respect, it would be monitored. As for what happens if a parent has a concern about the cost of school uniform, or a complaint, that is to be made directly to the school and is not a matter we intend putting under Ofsted’s purview. If the parent is not happy with the result of complaining to the school, they can come to the department about it. We understand that sometimes, when schools change leadership and there is a new head teacher, et cetera, there can be a change in uniform policy but, of course, there should be consultation in relation to that. Under the statutory guidance, they must have regard to that, including the cost of school uniforms.

In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, hospital schools will not be within the purview of the Bill because we feel they are in a unique situation and it would be inappropriate to bind them in that way.

Many noble Lords are eager to know when the statutory guidance will come into effect so that parents can benefit from it. I share this view, but we need to ensure that schools can implement changes in a timely and considered manner, to prevent parents incurring additional costs from short-notice policy changes, and particularly having to waste uniform already purchased. Subject to Royal Assent and appropriate stakeholder engagement, I would like to be in a position to issue the guidance this autumn. While schools will not be required to make sudden changes to their uniform policy in September, we expect schools to start thinking about the changes they need to make once the guidance is issued. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, that we will set out clearly in the statutory guidance when we expect schools to implement the requirements.

I say to my noble friend Lord Blencathra that the passage of the Bill thus far has generated valuable and considered debate, and the Government have been keen to take into account the views raised in Parliament in developing the statutory guidance. I reassure noble Lords that, as I have done today, the Government will continue to clearly set out our position on school uniform and the content of the statutory guidance for the House during the legislative process—that is a matter of public record. I commit to sharing a copy of the draft statutory guidance so that noble Lords can have sight of it. I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to engage with them and with key stakeholders before we finalise the guidance, to ensure that it will be fit for purpose. This includes representatives of schools, parents and other interested parties, such as the Children’s Society and the Schoolwear Association, whose members, to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, supply uniforms both on the high street and online.

The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raised valuable points regarding future revisions of the statutory guidance. I reassure noble Lords that, should the guidance be revised significantly in future, the Department for Education will assess the economic impact of changes and undertake similar stakeholder engagement. Obviously, I am happy to meet my noble friend Lord Blencathra to, I hope, assuage his concerns. There is no intention here to bypass parliamentary scrutiny and I hope that by agreeing to share the draft statutory guidance I have allayed his fears, but we may have to explore, in that meeting, whether having regulations, when something like this probably needs to be amended quite frequently, is actually the best use of the important role that Parliament has in scrutinising this.

The Bill, as noble Lords have outlined, will help families across the country who may be struggling to afford school uniform. The Government support the Bill and ask noble Lords to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and resist the temptation to table amendments: I urge noble Lords to support her in that.