It’s one of my most dreaded days of the year, venturing into town for uniform and equipment shopping. No-one wants to do it, yet we all have to. At least we all have to in the UK where uniform is a national obsession. I’m not really writing this to start an ‘is uniform good/bad’ argument – I’ve had those before. In a nutshell those against make a case for personal freedom, comfort and practicality and those for make the case for equality in terms of supporting and protecting poorer students and the pride of group identity. Some make the case that you need uniform for work but obviously that’s mostly bollocks unless you end up in low paid retail work or you need to be in uniform to keep yourself or others safe. In reality, most people don’t work in uniform. And women don’t tend to wear ties either. Nevertheless, let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that uniforms are a force for good. Now what?
I take the leaflet that my son’s new secondary school have helpfully given me, complete with pictures of acceptable shoes (only one velcro strap, slip ons or laces, leather, no trainers, plain black etc…) and skirt length. Thankfully he’d rather wear trousers. In primary school it was simple. White shirt, blue v-neck, grey trousers, black shoes, navy shorts and white t-shirt for PE. Whole kit available in most supermarkets for less than £50 with an extra £3 for the tie. Reasonable, I’d call that. This is a whole other ball game. For a start I’m going to have to go to at least three shops. One is an ‘approved’ supplier -Blazers, PE kits and ties have to be school branded. The shop is local, convenient and packed to the rafters with stressed parents and children. In front of this audience, we play out the ritual of “room to grow” with me demanding that he gets bigger sizes so that they’ll last longer and with him almost weeping with the fear of being bullied. I win as I have the money. And so I sign away £120. And we’ve barely begun. In the queue for the one card machine in the shop is a mother whose eyes are filled with tears. Her card has just bounced. She pulls out her credit card. I can see her briefly cross the fingers on her spare hand as she taps in the pin number. And I know how she feels. Summer holidays are expensive. The last thing you need at this stage of the year is expensive school uniform. I look away.
I’m already fed up and I don’t even know at that point that I have another four hours of stress lying before me. I could go into minute detail about how that next four hours transpires. The locust stripped supermarkets that had sold out of his sizes…the shoe fiasco…the hour spent driving from one town centre to another…the living hell of Sports Direct. But let’s cut to the final sum – a few pence over £300 to kit him out. And that was with me driving from place to place to get the very best deals I could. £300.
It was specified he had to have not just the usual stationery in his kit, but also highlighter pens, green and purple biros and language dictionaries. Items his brothers were never expected to buy as the school provided them. But now, in the face of funding cuts, it seems the cost is passed to parents.
“We need green and purple pens because when I mark my own work, I do it in green and when I mark someone else’s we write in purple.”
“You’re having to pay to do your own marking?” His lip does that wobble thing kids do when they think you’re about to kick off so I take a deep breath and put them in the basket.
“I can’t have those, they have to be Collins language dictionaries.”
“But there are no Collins language dictionaries here. This is still a good brand.”
“But it says Collins – can we go to Waterstones in Manchester – they might have them?”
“No. We’re in The Works in Oldham because that’s what we can afford right now and these will do.”
Wobbles again, but I’m past caring. And even with all that, still £300.
We’re not a low income family. Compared to many, we’re pretty well off and now our older boys are grown and gone, we only have one child to kit out, but this is a real stretch for us at this time of year. I dread to think what other families are experiencing. We don’t have to pay out for a bus pass either as we live walking distance from school. And our school is not even one of the most expensive in terms of uniform – some insist on the initials of the child being printed on things, on branded trousers, skirts, shirts and in one case, a parent told me of Drama socks. Drama socks? Seriously?
If we’re going to make the case that uniforms are a good leveller for poorer students, why are we making them so expensive? If we’re going to say that school uniforms help students to be less reliant on expensive brands, why are we branding our uniforms expensively? Some help is available in some local authorities, but even that post code lottery grant doesn’t even cover half of what I had to spend. And I even hear of schools insisting that the child has an iPad or computer to boot. There are schools expecting parents to spend around £1000 for their child to start secondary. It’s completely outrageous.
Branded uniform adds an unacceptable amount to the cost of kitting a child out for school. Without a blazer and branded PE kit, I could have saved a third of the cost. Still expensive, but much less so. Why are so many schools insisting our children wear blazers? Too hot for Summer, too cold for winter, too bulky for coats to be worn over them, rules about not layering under them…they are useless. And they look cheap even when they’re not. So why do schools do all this branding? Is it just thoughtlessness? An obsession with competition? Or are they getting commission for sales to help plug their one funding shortfalls? Has it become necessary for schools to rip off their students and parents in order to survive? If so, then our ire should be directed at the Treasury. And if not, it’s really about time parents stood up and spoke out about the cost.