Nickie Aiken contributions to the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill 2019-21

Wed 16th September 2020 Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill (First sitting) (Public Bill Committees)
Committee Debate: House of Commons
3 interactions (292 words)
Fri 13th March 2020 Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
3 interactions (139 words)

Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill (First sitting)

(Committee Debate: House of Commons)
Nickie Aiken Excerpts
Wednesday 16th September 2020

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Education
Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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16 Sep 2020, 12:01 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale on securing the Bill and on his long advocacy on this issue.

The Bill will make affordability the priority consideration in statutory guidance, which will go a long way towards levelling up our treatment of uniforms, which has been slipping in many ways. My eldest child went to school in 2001, a long time ago; my youngest is in school for four more years—four more years of buying uniform. That has been a lot of uniform along the way. In that time, I have seen the creeping number and cost of additional items that need to be bought for uniform, inconsistency between schools and the incremental use of “My uniform costs more than yours” as a proxy for better school standards, in order to attract students to academies.

When my youngest child went into year 7, his uniform bill was an eye-watering £468.50. It could only be bought from one school uniform shop. I had to top it up recently—he has unfortunately grown a lot—and that cost another £200. Those figures are unsustainable for many families. I support school uniform guidance that ensures that there is less branded, expensive uniform, which drives many families into debt; that provides for not so many exclusive suppliers, who do not put affordability at the top of the list; and that ensures that good-quality, own-brand supermarket choices can be made and that clothes swaps are easy.

The Bill is for that mum who, when I was looking round the local comprehensive for my children, sat down in front of me, picked up the uniform bill, looked at her son, shook her head and walked away from the school. He was not able to go to that school because of the cost. There are many families who face those choices.

The Bill is for those families who I took on trips last summer when I was running a youth group. I sat down and talked with the mums. They said that they had not been able to afford any other trips with their children because they were saving the money and that they were eating less during the summer because they knew the uniform bill was coming—that dreaded moment in September was coming, when they would have to go to the uniform shop.

The Bill is for governors and parents. It will put them back in the driving seat, able to challenge the school uniform bill. It is for our comprehensive education system; it will strengthen uniform policy so that all children feel equal—so that there is less difference between children, for which they can be bullied and because of which they often miss school.

I seek assurance from the Minister that he will work with the Children’s Society, which has talked with many parents and strongly represents them, on the guidance. I seek assurances that the guidance will include details on how parents and governors can use it to challenge the system in their school—it must give them that ability—and will clearly state how they can do so. I seek assurance that it will provide more choice for parents, so that they are able to put affordability at the top of the list, and that there will transparency for single-supplier tenders, focused on best value, through either regular reporting to governors or looking at the system overall. One primary school in my constituency insists that uniform can be bought only from a department store in Sloane Square, for example.

Minimising branded items is an absolutely fundamental part of the guidance, as is the need to promote school uniform banks and grants, so that even before a parent comes to a school, they can see in the guidance where help is available if they know that this will be a difficult issue for them. Finally, I hope that the guidance will come out soon, in good time for schools to readjust their policies for the next school year.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
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16 Sep 2020, 12:16 a.m.

I would like to add my support to the Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale for bringing it forward, which is important. As a mum of two schoolchildren, I have lived the school uniform life. I am delighted that my daughter has now gone into the sixth form, where they do not have a uniform policy—I enjoy the morning fashion shows.

However, my son is still in school uniform. Yes, we need to make it cost-effective and allow families of all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life and social and economic backgrounds to be able to afford it, but this is about quality as well. My experience is that a blazer for my daughter lasted five years, and that my son’s blazer lasted one year. It is about quality; we have to ensure that, although these things are cheap, they last. It is important to ensure that school uniform providers provide quality, as well as ensuring that uniforms are sold at a reasonable price.

Many school sixth forms now insist on some type of school uniform, which might be suits, particularly for boys. Again, that is a big added cost for families. In my constituency, a group of parents from Pimlico Academy has been campaigning on this issue. I understand that the school changed its policy recently and gave parents only about two weeks’ notice. The parents are concerned that this is an added financial burden for them at this moment, particularly for many who are on furlough or who have lost their jobs.

I absolutely support the ethos of the Bill, and I welcome the fact that the Government can, hopefully, ensure that families can afford decent, high-quality school uniform for their children throughout their school years.

Margaret Greenwood Portrait Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)
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16 Sep 2020, 12:18 a.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale for his work on the Bill, and I congratulate him on the success he has had with it thus far. The Bill had its First reading on 5 March and passed its Second Reading on 13 March without a Division. Current guidance on school uniform for governing bodies, school leaders, school staff and local authorities was published in September 2013 and is non-statutory. Consequently, there are currently no binding rules on school uniforms in England.

The Bill would impose a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to issue guidance to the appropriate authorities of relevant schools in England on the costs aspects of school uniform policies. It would ensure that the appropriate authority of a relevant school must have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State when developing and implementing a school uniform policy for a school.

The Opposition support the Bill and have long talked about poverty-proofing schools. Indeed, tackling the cost of school uniforms is one of the ways we feel that that can be achieved. It is pleasing, too, that the Government support the Bill, and I am encouraged that the schools Minister has talked about how the Bill

“will positively improve the lives of families across this country.”––[Official Report, 13 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 584.]

Research shows not only the high cost of school uniforms, but the vastly increased cost of school uniforms over the past few years. For example, research by the Department for Education in 2015 showed that the average total expenditure on school uniform for the 2014-15 school year up to the end of February 2015 was £212.88. Parents responding to a Children’s Society survey in March this year said that they spent an average of around £337 on secondary school uniform each year. Parents of primary school children say that they are now paying as much as £315 a child per year. With that in mind, families with three children could be paying around £1,000 a year just to send them to school in the right uniform.

It is deeply concerning that high uniform costs are putting additional strain on family finances. The Children’s Society says that 13% of families reported that they had cut back on food and other essentials because of the cost of uniforms. The impact is even greater for low-income families, with 23% saying that they had to cut back. That is a wholly unacceptable state of affairs.

The Children’s Society further noted that children had been bullied, felt left out or even been excluded from schools for wearing incorrect uniform.

On Second Reading, the Minister said that the Government will be producing statutory guidance on the cost aspect of school uniforms that makes it clear to both parents and schools that uniforms must be affordable and value for money. Can the Minister set out what specifically he considers to be the cost aspect of uniform policy? Will he ensure that parents are able to exercise choice when it comes to deciding where to buy uniforms for their children? Will it address the issue of transparency of single-supplier arrangements?

The non-statutory guidance states:

“Exclusive single supplier contracts should be avoided unless regular tendering competitions are run where more than one supplier can compete for the contract and where best value for parents is secured.”

How will that issue be dealt with in the new guidance?

Will the guidance address the issue of branding and school logos? The current non-statutory guidance states:

“Schools should keep compulsory branded items to a minimum and avoid specifying expensive items of uniform.”

Does the Minister believe that goes far enough?

The Minister said on Second Reading that the Government

“will be engaging…with key stakeholders to understand their views as statutory guidance on uniform costs is drafted.”—[Official Report, 13 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 586.]

Which key stakeholders will the Government engage with and when will this engagement take place? Will draft guidance be developed and published before the Bill completes its passage through the House of Commons? What will happen if schools do not comply with the new statutory guidance once it has been published? Can the Minister assure the Committee that guidance will be specific and clear, so that those that it applies to are left in no doubt about their obligations?

Schools play a vital part in local communities, and many already provide help and support to families to signpost them to agencies where they can get financial and practical support. Will the Minister ensure that the new guidance contains the requirement for schools to regularly make information available on local grants and other schemes available to help families with the cost of uniform?

Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Nickie Aiken Excerpts
Friday 13th March 2020

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Education
Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury
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13 Mar 2020, 9:39 a.m.

I do; I concur completely with the hon. Gentleman. When I was at school and people did not have a uniform—as I said, it highlighted the haves and the have-nots—the fashions of the day were really bad, particularly if someone had a highlighted mullet or, in some cases, Day-Glo leg warmers.

I believe, as does the Minister, that school uniforms are a good thing if they are affordable and inclusive. They are one of the ways that schools can poverty-proof the school day. They make children equal and take away the pressures to have to wear the latest fashionable and often very expensive branded clothes and shoes. Yet, too many schools needlessly apply high prices to a multitude of branded items of uniform, including jumpers, blazers, ties, hats, PE bags, coats and even drama socks.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie Aiken (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
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13 Mar 2020, 9:40 a.m.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the issue is also the quality of the uniform? I speak from experience as the mother of two teenagers. One attends a girls’ comprehensive just down the road. I bought her blazer when she was going into year 7. She is now in year 11 and about to leave the statutory part of school and she is still in that blazer. It has been excellent quality.

My son, who is in year 9, is now on his fourth blazer because the quality has not been the same. He is in a different school. I absolutely support this Bill, but it must be about quality and ensuring that parents do not have to keep buying uniform. Obviously, children have growth spurts, but the quality of the uniform should be as good as we would expect.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury
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13 Mar 2020, 9:40 a.m.

I do not disagree about quality, but we should also think about choice and affordability, and that is the key thing that this Bill addresses.

One parent wrote to me about a particular school that demands a different uniform for each house group. The march towards “if a child wears it, brand it with an embroidered logo” must end, to drive down costs and make uniforms genuinely inclusive.