Nearly 2,500 years ago the Greek politician and general Pericles said: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you” and in my time as a politician I have learnt that, alas, there is virtually nothing that escapes politics and regulation. This is the case with schoolwear, which has prompted concern and the need to push back from its supporters.
Uniforms can be a great social leveller, reducing the risk for fashion-based bullying and hierarchies.
These are not my views. A recent survey by Schoolwear Association found that three quarters of parents agreed. Similar surveys of headteachers revealed that 80 percent of them believe school uniforms are effective in stopping bullying. 75% agreed that bullying would be worse if uniforms were removed.
It is crucial that uniforms are affordable in order to allow MPs and other opinion-formers to make their case.
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Schoolwear costs can be as low as £100 per year for the average child – which given all their benefits is a bargain, especially considering pupils wear their uniforms for around 195 days of the year. I do appreciate the fact that more money can create pressures on families, especially larger families. This is especially true during the worst crisis in cost of living for thirty years. Inflation has been at seven percent and could rise further. Energy prices have risen to unprecedented levels.
Citing the example given by the repeal of the Tampon Tax, I called on the Government earlier this month to take advantage one of our new Brexit freedoms and scrap the EU’s twenty percent VAT rate on school uniforms for taller and older children. Something that could save parents of children over the age of fourteen £18.60 per year. But we need to go further.
Last year a well-meaning but flawed piece of legislation with its genesis in a Labour MP’s Private Members Bill was waved through Parliament, which attempted in its original form to give the Government something towards powers to regulate the price of school uniforms. I spoke in the Commons and wrote about the dangers of this much micro-management from Whitehall, not least due to my fears about uniforms being pared down to supermarket polo shirts and with little to no branding, something that would undermine their very purpose of promoting belonging and pride and – counterintuitively but importantly – individuality, in a school rather than personal sense. There are better alternatives that will be in place of these regulations, and they are already being developed.
Recently one of the UK’s leading school uniform manufacturers, Trutex, has launched a scheme ‘Re:Form’ which grants parents a 10 per cent discount on new uniforms in return for depositing uniforms their children no longer need. These items are then refurbished, and then sold to families at a 40% discount. Unrepairable uniforms can be recycled into furniture and yarn. In all it is estimated this scheme could save parents as much as £40 a year. Other innovative schemes, such as Total Clothing, Grays Schoolwear and David Luke, show a real commitment to affordability.
With the new school year only four months away we should avoid making the mistake of further going down the road of over-regulation – which like many left-wing inspired concepts starts out as well-meaning but inevitably backfires. Instead, at this time of need it is still not too late for the Government to support families by cutting taxes like VAT and promoting sustainable business led solutions: This is – or at least should be – the Conservative way.