The topic of school uniforms is often a divisive one. While most students I’ve taught would rather be learning in a hoodie and trainers than a stiff blazer and suffocating tie, both the teacher and the mum in me recognise the need to level the playing field as much as possible for the children whose poverty would be exposed by everyone else’s designer gear.
School uniforms have appeared frequently in the news lately because the government has unveiled a new law designed to limit the cost for families struggling to cope in the current economic climate. The law mandates that schools keep branded items to a minimum and that second-hand options must be made available. In the words of the chancellor, school uniform should “never be a burden” to parents. But this wishy-washy policy, which might sound impressive at first hearing, doesn’t go far enough to provide the sort of support families actually need.
I’ve been on enough school trips with overexcited teenagers to know the value of spotting a stray red blazer among a sea of strangers, but uniformity can be achieved in ways that would cost families only a couple of pounds rather than hundreds – for example, with a school tie or a pin-on badge.
Surely, when the cost of survival seems insurmountable to so many households, minimising outgoings must be a priority. But the government’s announcement only requires schools to keep items with a logo to a “minimum”, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation, exposing the flimsy nature of this so-called policy.
Many schools might scrap branded PE kits or bags, but still mandate a blazer that often costs upwards of £50 per child (and that’s before you account for the rate that teenagers grow). Families struggling to put food on the table need more substantial help than this; they need firmer reassurances that, even as bills soar in the coming months, they will be able to send their children to school in the same clothes as their peers.
True to form, the Conservatives have missed the mark with this policy – and perhaps deliberately so. It focuses on a symptom while conveniently obscuring the disease, centring the issue around uniform rather than the cost of living crisis itself. Branded uniform aside, an increasing number of parents are struggling to feed their children let alone kit them with the other items that make up a school uniform, including shoes, bags and shirts.
A growing number of families are relying on uniform banks for basic items as they grapple with doubling household bills on top of the costs involved with returning to school in September. This policy does not eradicate the crippling material poverty facing millions over the next few months.
If the government is sincere in its apparent desire to support the poorest communities, then we would see pledges to hold the extortionate energy companies to account and a real price cap that doesn’t double every other week. We’d see funding funnelled into the benefit system and wage rises in line with inflation now, when they are needed more than ever.
Instead, we see the cost of living crisis used as a political football by people whose lives it will never touch, as more households are plunged into destitution and already economically vulnerable communities turn to credit cards to make ends meet.
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The fact is, uniform is not really the problem – it is a distraction from the exploitative disregard the government has for the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised. After all, if uniform really was the central issue here, then perhaps they’d prioritise the postcode lottery that ensures only a fifth of parents can access funding for school uniform through their councils.
At times like this, schools would usually step in. Every school I’ve worked in has provided uniform at its own cost for children who cannot afford it – whether that’s blazers subsidised from the school budget or pastoral staff buying bulk black shoes from their own pockets to be handed out to pupils who turn up in flip-flops or ripped trainers. Cupboards in schools up and down the country are stocked with extra pens, sanitary towels, old school ties to give to students in need – not provided by the government, but by schools and even teachers themselves.
But as teachers struggle to cope with their own household bills in the wake of the government’s refusal to raise wages in line with inflation, and as education leaders grapple with the impact of enormous energy bills come autumn, this will become a thing of the past.
If the government is so concerned about the cost of uniform for struggling families, then they need to take an introspective look at the decade of austerity, the years of cuts to vital services and the economic policies that have led us here, rather than obscuring this mess of their own making with shiny policies that do nothing for households in need.