Opinion

Parents turn to crisis loans to afford school uniform. It's time for change

Increased benefits and action by schools can prevent the "wave of concern" over school uniforms witnessed by researchers each time schools open, says Dr Geoff Page

Erik, a lone dad, said he went without a winter coat and cut back on heating and food to buy his daughter’s school uniform.

Erik, a lone dad, said he went without a winter coat and cut back on heating and food to buy his daughter’s school uniform. Image: Pexels

School uniform is meant to be a great leveller. Everyone wears the same, and the Child Poverty Action Group says it should be “the cheapest option for most families”. The costs can still be huge, though. On average, £315 per year for each primary school child, and £337 for each child in secondary school – over three times what parents think is reasonable.

I work on Covid Realities, a major research programme that has been partnering with families on a low income since June 2020. Parents can write diaries and take part in Zoom groups, make zines, and answer video questions through our website (and you can still get involved!)

One of the strengths of Covid Realities is that if something worries families, it soon becomes clear. And each time schools re-open, a wave of concerned parents have told us how difficult it is to afford school uniforms.

Uniform for her only daughter ate up over half of Alannah’s monthly income. “Am anxious and financially broke, paying £310 pound for school uniform. When I only receive £556 a month,” she wrote.

Andrea N, a mum of two, told us that the sudden, unavoidable costs of uniform was a huge added stress: “With ever increasing cost regards food, electricity and gas I am struggling now with a brand-new uniform for my eldest child… It’s just money, money, money in already stressful and difficult times.“

Families made trade-offs on essentials to prioritise school uniform. In Scotland, Betty P cut back on food.

“Nothing his size in the sale or anywhere,” she wrote, “so we had to go to more expensive shops which pretty much means pasta to eat all month.”

And Erik, a lone dad, said he went without a winter coat and cut back on heating and food to buy his daughter’s uniform.

Lockdown has made it even harder to get by. Being at home has driven up costs. Charity shops aren’t open, school uniform banks are closed or restricted, and friends or relatives can’t be seen for hand-me-downs. This drove Tahlia, a mum of three, into debt and hunger:

“I’ve not received any hand me down clothes for my sons this whole year…,” she said. “In September had to buy 3 children all brand new uniform… I’m £2000 in debt, I ran out of money a week last Thursday… I’ve only eaten a diet based on bread and potatoes.”

And for families who are shielding or disabled, shopping around has become impossible. 

School uniform is yet another cost for families who are already on an income that is too low

By law, parents on a low income have to be given some help with the costs of uniform in Scotland (over £100), Wales (£125-145) and Northern Ireland (£35-56). The same isn’t true in England, and up to 80 per cent of Local Authorities provide no help at all.

But even when grants are available, they aren’t enough. Parents in Scotland told us about taking on new debt such as crisis loans to buy uniforms. Grants were rarely enough to buy even a single blazer. 

Clearly, this just isn’t good enough. The Child Poverty Action Group lists some sensible measures that schools can take to make uniforms more affordable, like avoiding badged clothing, holding uniform recycling days, and giving ‘the benefit of the doubt’ to children who show up in incomplete or off-policy uniform.

But the Westminster Government also needs to step up to ensure that families can afford uniforms without forgoing food, heating or entering debt. Part of the problem is that school uniform is yet another cost for families who are already on an income that is too low. Measures like national guidance on the cost of school uniforms will help, but what is really needed is a more generous benefits system that can support a decent quality of life. 

Dr Geoff Page is a research fellow on the Covid Realities programme

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