Schools have been warned that if they continue to flout guidance on the price of uniforms the Education Minister will consider legally compelling them to keep costs down.
With thousands of parents struggling to find hundreds of pounds for school uniforms, the cost particularly in the current economic climate when household incomes have been squeezed, is a financial hardship for many.
There are now more than 66,000 pupils here dependent on the Department of Education for uniform grants.
But Government assistance of around £35 for primary pupils and £51 for post-primary pupils would not cover the cost of the majority of uniforms — with some PE kits alone costing more than £100.
The minister vowed yesterday: “If guidance continues to be ignored then I will look at introducing legislation to curb uniform costs.”
His comments came on the same day as the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) revealed it would be writing to 29,500 primary and secondary schools in the UK including Northern Ireland asking them to review their uniform policies.
It follows an OFT survey of state schools which found that when uniform items can only be purchased from certain retailers or suppliers selected by the school or from the school shop, prices can be much higher than if families were able to freely shop around.
So concerned is Minister O’Dowd about the situation that he wrote to principals and boards of governors last month reminding them that they should ensure that their “school uniform policy is fair and reasonable, in practical and financial terms, and should have regard to their duties under relevant equality and other legislation”.
He added in the circular: “Families should not feel excluded from being able to select a particular school because of the cost of a uniform.”
Parenting NI has welcomed the the minister’s comments and OFT’s drive to make uniforms more affordable.
Director Jackie Valentine said: “Parents would contact us about the cost of school uniforms. Parents have to take into account the cost of a uniform when choosing a school for their child and they would tell us that they then have to cut back on other expenses in order to meet the demand of the compulsory school uniform.
“Parents are hardest hit when they have two or three children to buy for, whether at the same school or not. A reduction in the cost of uniforms would be very welcome to all parents in this difficult economic time.”
OFT’s Susan Oxley said: “When schools require that uniforms are bought from a preferred supplier or shop it can act as a ‘tax' on families, which mostly goes to the chosen retailers. However, when families are able to shop around for school uniform items it can drive competition and bring down prices for all.
“We have written to schools across the UK asking them to review their policies and supplier arrangements,” she said.
The prices of some unifroms: