A Matter of Choice | Parents shouldn't need deep pockets to buy school uniform

Deep pockets to buy school uniform | Owl & Badger

In preparation for children returning to school this September, parents have again been to the shops to purchase new sets of school uniform.

School uniform is an important aspect of school life, bringing a number of benefits.  As stated by the Department for Education in its 2013 advice to schools, uniform “can play a valuable role in contributing to the ethos of a school & in setting an appropriate tone”.

For parents it can also present relief from the pressure to buy branded or fashionable stuff for their kids.

Mintel research found that over two-fifths of parents felt pressure to buy their children branded back-to-school products & nearly half said there is more pressure now than previously to buy such items.

Wearing Thin

But school uniform comes with a cost. The average spending by parents per year on primary school uniform is as much as £255 according to research undertaken by Children’s Society (though Mintel’s figure was lower at around £134).

The Children Society's research showed that as a result of school uniform costs, some families are being forced to cut back on basic essentials & take on debt.

Emma Hardy MP has noted that the cost of uniform can often tip parents ‘over the edge’ at the end of the summer holidays.

Why So Expensive?

A key driver in parents spending is their understandable desire to invest in lasting quality.  But another important one is the need to buy uniform that bears the school’s logo.

David Burgess, School Wear Association

David Burgess, chair of the School Wear Association, told the Manchester Evening News that ”the inclusion of a logo into a uniform is an important one, it creates a sense of ownership for pupils & their schools, whilst instilling a sense of pride, belonging & equality”.

However, if uniform bearing the logo can only be bought from one uniform shop, this will push up prices.

A government study recently cited by the BBC, clearly illustrates the difference in prices between uniform that is widely available & uniform that can only be bought from designated suppliers.

In fact, the Department for Education said that parents and carers are significantly less likely to report financial hardship when schools allow them to purchase uniform from a variety of suppliers.

As the Welsh Government pointed out in its recently published Statutory Guidance, “where a uniform item is only available from a single outlet, prices are likely to be higher than they would be if parents were able to buy the item from other sources”.

Unfortunately, in 2015 some 83% of schools still required that at least some of their uniform be bought from only one designated shop and/or the school shop.

And the increase in prices caused by granting designated shops monopolies over logo branded uniform extends to generic clothing which doesn’t include the logo as well.

Understandably lacking in time and stressed by mounting costs, parents often prefer the convenience of doing all their ‘Back School Shopping’ all at once.

As a result, parents pay a ‘convenience’ premium on generic clothing sold alongside official uniform in the designated shop.  They can of course vote with their feet, but that often means trudging elsewhere (often with small children in tow).


Primary Schools – The Devil Incarnate?

Schools aren't being malicious when they grant individual shops monopolies.

Rather, schools are run by specialists in education. They aren’t set up to monitor the health of the local uniform market, but instead are focused on educating several hundred kids.

While the schools have, rightly, been concentrating on other things, less respectable uniform suppliers have been misleading them.

Promises to "offer more competitive prices" in exchange for exclusivity are still being trotted out.

Some uniform suppliers simply demand exclusivity as a condition of doing business with a school.  Despite holding all the cards, some schools have acquiesced.

Nonetheless, despite who is to blame, school uniform policy heavily impacts on parents and deserves reconsideration.

A Simple Solution

In an open letter to head teachers, the Competition & Markets Authority, experts on the matter, explained that if competition can be established it would reduce costs.

They said that “in the case of school uniforms" greater competition would "bring down the prices of uniforms & improve their quality.

(The CMA followed their 2015 letter up last week with a letter to the Secretary of State for Education lamenting that a lack of competition continued to cause “a surge of complaints from parents and carers every summer about the excessive cost of uniforms where school policies prevent items being purchased from cheaper alternative suppliers.”)

By encouraging competition, then, schools would help to bring down prices.  Suppliers would compete with each other to offer the best price, without needing schools to get involved.

At Owl & Badger, we’re fully behind this.

Uniform suppliers establish monopolies by getting exclusive permission to reproduce a school logo and (often) by getting the school to instruct parents via the school website to only buy from that supplier.

We think schools should go in the opposite direction.

Following the example set by the central government and the ‘Open Government License’, schools could and should allow anybody to reuse their logo for the purposes of selling school uniform.

In addition, they should publish an open list of uniform suppliers on the school website. If a new supplier asks to be added, they should be by default.

This isn’t to say schools should abandon control over their uniform.

If a uniform supplier’s behaviour is unsatisfactory then a school should simply remove them from the list and revoke permission to use the logo.

Equally, consistency can be maintained by setting out a clear specification for school uniform. Colours, styles and fabrics can be easily set out and are readily understood by uniform suppliers.

By encouraging competition, schools could save their parents considerable amounts of money and themselves time. Competition is good and we at Owl & Badger are entirely in favour of it.

What you can do

If you want to see the price of school uniform come down, you can do a lot to change things at your school and at others.  In no particular order, here are a few steps you can take:

  1. Contact your school and tell them that you want to see an end to exclusive relationships.
  2. Share this blog post on social media and/or tell your friends & family that you agree that there should be more competition between school uniform shops.
  3. Let us know. We’ll be more than happy to get in touch with your school and talk to them about us becoming an additional uniform supplier.
  4. Write a comment below. Let us know what you think (even if you disagree) and join the conversation.

Together we can do something about the rising price of school uniform.

Thanks for reading!