As pupils return to school at the start of a new academic year, stories regarding the affordability and inclusiveness of school uniforms are returning to the headlines. It is an issue which is often in the limelight at this time, and many of us will have our own experiences from our time governing, working in schools or even as pupils. For those governing, this issue is especially pertinent as a school or trust’s governing body is responsible for deciding whether there should be a uniform policy and, if so, what it should contain and how uniform should be sourced. A school or trust’s uniform policy reflects the institution’s culture, set by those governing as part of their strategic role, and has particular relevance for inclusivity within the organisation.
A campaign by MP Emma Hardy has highlighted causes of high uniform prices, including schools insisting on branded uniform, and using a single retailer who is therefore able to inflate prices. As part of the campaign, Hardy set up a uniform exchange scheme in her Hull West and Hessle constituency, and has called on schools there to let their pupils wear an unbranded uniform. In a Joint Work and Pensions and Education Committees' session earlier this month, Lord Agnew (Minister for the School System) agreed to amend the Department for Education’s guidance to address these issues, describing the practice of insisting on single suppliers as “a pernicious way of excluding children from less well-off backgrounds.”
A NASUWT survey last year found that a majority of parents and carers were spending over £100 per child on school uniform, with a large proportion paying between £200 and £300. For many families, this is a significant amount of money which could become unaffordable, particularly for pupils from disadvantaged families. The Competition and Markets Authority’s chair, Lord Andrew Tyrie, wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson earlier this month to raise concerns about the issue of single suppliers. Williamson’s response stressed the importance of schools minimising costs by limiting branded items and avoiding single-supplier contracts, and committed to making the Department’s school uniform guidance statutory when possible.
Governing boards are well placed to begin to address some of the concerns outlined. Practical steps to take when reviewing your uniform policy can include to:
- Ensure that your school uniform can be bought from a number of suppliers.
- Minimise the number of branded items required, and make the school logo available as a patch so it can be sewed or ironed on.
- Consider your PE uniform, including required footwear, ensuring that all requirements are necessary and justifiable.
- If the uniform policy is being changed, ensure there is a sufficient timeframe for new items to be purchased.
- Consider facilitating opportunities for parents to buy and sell second hand uniform.
- Consult widely with pupils and parents about any proposed changes.
Some schools also offer financial support to families with purchasing school uniforms, although we understand that this can be difficult in the current funding climate. Our School Governance in 2019 report found that this year 34% of respondents’ schools were offering financial support for purchasing school uniforms compared to 38% in the previous year. NGA believes that this decline is due to the funding pressures schools are facing rather than a decrease in need.
When considering the needs of disadvantaged pupils, schools should also consider the possibility that items not covered by a uniform policy, such as bags and coats, will be used by pupils as status symbols. This can demoralise pupils, and put pressure on parents to buy items they cannot afford so their child is not the odd one out. In response, some schools have included coats and bag in their uniform policies, only allowing particular items to be used. As always, schools will need to consider their particular context and should consult with parents before introducing changes.
As well as cost, controversy has also arisen around the often gendered nature of school uniforms, and the attempts of institutions to combat this. Schools and trusts are increasingly recognising the importance of an inclusive approach to gender in supporting the health and mental wellbeing of their pupils. As public institutions, schools are required by the Equality Act 2010 to avoid discriminating against individuals on the basis of their sex, or gender reassignment. The gendered nature of uniform policies can be incredibly serious in either enabling or preventing pupils who are changing their gender identity from expressing themselves safely during a challenging period in their lives.
The easiest solution for schools is to stop referring to ‘male’ and ‘female’ uniforms or dress codes. Instead, pupils should be able to wear any and all approved uniform items which are available. However, even this can still provoke controversy, as has recently been seen in Lewes where a new gender-neutral uniform policy required all students to wear trousers, sparking protests from those who wanted to continue wearing skirts. An alternative, which schools are increasingly adopting, is to have both a ‘trouser uniform’ and a ‘skirt uniform’, which all pupils can choose between. Given the growing awareness of the issue of ‘upskirting’, it is worth remembering that pupils should not be penalised through having their choice reduced because of the expected behaviour of their peers.
For those governing, this can feel like a minefield where it is impossible to please everyone. However, simple steps, such as ensuring that there are no references to ‘male’ or ‘female’ uniforms, can make a huge difference to pupils at no cost. Once again, schools should consider their contexts and consult where possible. It is essential to remember that, while pupils might not be visibly struggling with their gender identity, this does not mean it is not taking place and small changes to language and options can have a significant impact on their mental wellbeing.
For those boards which are thinking about their uniform policies, NGA have recently updated our guidance, and the Department for Education also provide non-statutory advice for schools.