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Competition watchdog to scrutinise deals between schools and uniform suppliers

Arrangements that force parents to buy school uniforms at a premium from exclusive suppliers are facing scrutiny by the competition watchdog.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has sent an open letter to head teachers, governing boards and suppliers urging them to let parents buy uniforms at the best possible prices.

The CMA said it had received complaints from parents concerned about prices and quality as they bought uniforms for the start of the school year in September.

The letter says some parents in England had been forced to pay up to £10 extra per item of uniform where schools had appointed exclusive suppliers.

The CMA warned that these arrangements "may not be offering parents value for money" and urged suppliers and retailers with such arrangements in place with schools to check they are not in breach of competition law.

It is advising school governing boards to call for a review of uniform arrangements to ensure there is competition between suppliers and retailers and is urging head teachers to listen to parents, heed Department for Education guidance and prioritise value for money when choosing uniform policy.

It has also called on potential suppliers and retailers who are finding it difficult to sell school uniforms because of exclusive supply arrangements already in place to complain to the CMA.

CMA senior director Ann Pope said: "Buying school uniforms can be very expensive and particularly hits low income families and those with a number of children, so it is important parents and carers are able to shop around.

"We urge everyone involved to ensure that they are providing a good service to parents and carers and complying with Department for Education guidance.

"We will continue monitoring the sector and will consider taking enforcement action, if it is necessary."

Sam Royston, director of policy at The Children's Society, said: "School uniform costs can be a millstone around the necks of poorer parents, contributing to a cycle of debt and damaging the opportunities and well-being of lower-income pupils.

"One reason for the high costs are policies that force parents to buy clothing from specialist shops, and prevent them from buying cheaper items from supermarkets.

"We hope the CMA's letter will prompt all schools to take a fresh look at their policies and make sure every parent is given the chance to shop around for the best deal."

A National Governors' Association spokeswoman said: "NGA recognises that school uniform can form a key part of the identity of a school, but governing boards should make every effort to keep uniform costs to a minimum and make sure it is as widely available to purchase as possible."

A PTA spokesman said: "PTA UK supports the CMA campaign and welcomes its focus on the cost of school uniform to help ensure parents get the best value for money possible."

A survey by the Office of Fair Trading in 2012 found 74% of state schools placed restrictions on where uniforms can be bought, leading to parents paying £5 to £10 more for individual items.

The Schoolwear Association said sole suppliers were required to stock uniform all year round in all sizes, while two or more suppliers could result in a diminished sense of duty and the school having less power to demand best value and service levels.

It said in a statement: " We encourage schools to seek value by providing advice on garment selection and competitive tendering. We have lobbied the Government to remove VAT on school uniform and to enable a voucher scheme, similar to childcare vouchers.

"Many of our members work with schools to help disadvantaged families to have access to uniform, and we also advise schools on affordability initiatives such as savings clubs.

"We are anxious that the focus on school uniform should not be solely on price at the expense of poorer quality. Well-made, long-lasting uniform is not only better value in the long term but also the most environmentally sustainable option, and we should remember that children spend an average of 10 hours a day in their uniform so comfort and durability are vital."

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