This week, many children will clamber out of bed, clamber into their uniform and return to school for the summer term. School uniforms impose a uniform cost on parents and carers, which can mean that those who have the least are hit the hardest.
Every time children have returned to school over the past year, uniforms have been weighing on the minds of participants in Covid Realities - a major research programme which sees parents and carers on a low income document life in the pandemic. Participants have recorded the hard-hitting costs of uniform, and the inaccessibility of inadequate grants meant to help pay for it. And so, as a new school term begins, and with it the need to kit children out in ‘summer school wear’ and make sure existing uniform still fits, we are sharing what parents and carers have been saying about managing these costs.
Despite extensive planning and budgeting, the costs of many uniforms are often completely unmanageable for those on limited budgets – just one uniform took over half of Alannah’s total monthly income:
"It's been nothing but worry. Am anxious and financially broke, paying £310 for school uniform. When I only receive £556 a month." (Alannah F, single parent of one, North West)
The experience of having to choose between ‘heating and eating’ has been widely documented, but many parents are choosing between heating or eating because of uniforms:
"With ever increasing cost [of] food, electricity and gas I am struggling now with a brand-new uniform for my eldest child. Again, due to universal credit poverty strikes again… It’s just money, money, money in already stressful and difficult times." (Andrea N, lone parent with two children, Northern Ireland)
Parents are prioritising uniforms in their budgets. Uniforms took precedence over birthday presents for Dotty G’s family, and drove her to seek a crisis loan:
"It has been a long week. We have had birthdays this week. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford presents etc. We received emails through from our daughter’s school to tell us what procedures will be in place when schools start back next week… [W]e can’t afford to buy her school uniform. We had to apply for our 2nd crisis loan." (Dotty G, married mum of 3, Scotland)
High costs are harder to meet in lockdown
Many of the budgeting strategies families employ have become impossible during lockdown, while costs have risen. Tahlia once relied on charity shops and hand-me-downs from friends and family for uniforms, which are not possible during lockdowns. She has experienced a spiral of bills, debt and mounting hunger:
"Before covid I would see my brother every few months, and he would give us hand-me-down clothes… A few mums would do the same. Because of covid… I’ve not received any hand-me-down clothes for my sons this whole year… In September I had to buy 3 children all brand new uniform... I’m £2,000 in debt, I ran out of money a week last Thursday… I ran out of food over last weekend… I’ve only eaten a diet based on bread and potatoes this last month as I wanted to ensure my kids had food." (Tahlia J, lone mum of 3, Midlands)
Michael needed an internet connection for home schooling. As happened for many families, this was one bill too many, with Michael facing tough decisions about whether to buy uniforms or food:
"[D]uring lockdown as there was a need for internet connection for my daughter's school work. After making payments it is very hard to try and find enough money for food and school uniforms." (Michael R, lone parent, South East)
Additional needs, additional costs
Families with additional needs could find sourcing school uniforms more difficult or expensive. For disabled and shielding parents, busy shops and queues could be completely inaccessible:
"I’ve been shielding for months and now have to go to shops and buy my son uniform. Except I can’t stand for very long, without substantial pain. All the shops have queues, and it means I still can’t access them." (Conan M, partnered parent of two, North West)
Provision for support with school uniform costs depends on where you live in the UK, with a mixture of national grants in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and a patchwork of local authority provision in England. The eligibility criteria and the amount offered in support varies, and families have faced delays and uncertainty about what they might receive. Some are left out altogether. Teddie found she was ineligible because her family received legacy benefits:
"I saw advertised about uniform grants and thought ‘oh great we must be able to apply’ WRONG!!!! “No,” yet again because of the working tax credit." (Teddie G, married parent of five, North East)
When they were able to receive them, parents consistently described uniform grants as inadequate. Many did not even cover the cost of a blazer:
"My daughter is starting grammar school. The uniform is a few hundred pounds. The uniform grant is £73 or thereabouts. That doesn’t even cover the price of a blazer." (Andrea N, single mother of two, Northern Ireland)
Families living in poverty plan, budget and use careful financial strategies to get by. Lockdown has simultaneously made many of these strategies impossible, and led to increased pressures because of higher spending on food and utilities. This all too often leaves many families with unsustainable costs, and uniform is an additional financial pressure that pushes some deeper into hardship. But high uniform costs were a problem before the pandemic too.
School uniforms can help people feel pride in their school, and prevent bullying where children cannot afford the 'right' gear. But we need to make sure that uniforms are affordable for all, and do not create additional financial stress. Help with school uniform costs is patchy, inaccessible to some and inadequate for all. National guidance on the cost of a school uniform is one step towards making uniforms less damaging to families with the least, but more meaningful support is needed to meet families’ needs. The obvious answer is targeted support to families with children. This can be effectively and affordably delivered through an increase to child benefit of £10 per child per week.
Families are not uniform; it is unacceptable that they are being driven to debt, or to choose between blazers and eating, to buy their children’s school uniform. As children return to school for the summer term, let’s see concerted action to support families better.
Note: The project on which the above draws has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.