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Parents getting in debt to pay for school uniforms, MLAs warned


School uniforms can cost as much as £900, according to research

School uniforms can cost as much as £900, according to research

School uniforms can cost as much as £900, according to research

The Department of Education has been urged to follow the example of Wales by making school uniform guidance statutory to keep the cost at a reasonable level.

Stormont’s Education Committee was told that 32% of local families get into debt to pay for uniforms, which, according to research, can cost up to £900 depending on the school.

Sinead McMurray, from the Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service, told MLAs that uniform cost was becoming a significant factor for many parents when choosing a school for a child.

She estimated the cost of grammar school uniforms as being 25% more expensive than uniforms for non-grammar schools.

While the Department of Education previously issued guidance, the Welsh Assembly went a step further in 2019 by making guidance statutory, meaning all schools in Wales have to make reasonable attempts to keep the cost of uniforms as low as possible.

“The cost of uniforms represents a significant financial stress, particularly on low-income families,” Ms McMurray told MLAs.

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She added that making the making the guidance statutory would particularly help girls, who often find uniforms uncomfortable. 

“Girls, in particular, are put off from participating in PE by the wearing of skirts," she explained.

“Even at primary school, girls can feel uncomfortable with what they are wearing. We need to start moving away from using words like ‘decency’ and ‘length’ when setting guidelines.

"There have been individual cases were girls have challenged for the right to wear trousers.

“Making guidelines statutory would give anyone who wishes to contest a school policy on grounds of comfort, decency and the general feeling of being at ease with what they are wearing an option.”

Sinn Fein MLAs Sinead Bradley said uniform grants for low-income families should be reassessed. 

Families can currently apply for £35 per pupil at primary school, £51 for post-primary pupils and £56 for those over 15-years-old. In Scotland every, pupil can apply for £100 annually, rising to £200 in Wales.

“When you look at the cost of a pair of school shoes at £50, that [the local grant] covers next to nothing,” Ms Bradley said.

Committee member Diane Dodds MLA stressed that while no one wanted to do away with uniforms, the cost had to be looked at.

“I support school uniforms, but the affordability is challenging," she added.

Her DUP colleague Harry Harvey called for a cap on the price.

Ms McMurray said the problem was compounded by the fact that some schools chose to use sole suppliers, meaning their uniforms could not be bought off the shelf.

“A restricted supply and market forces are key to prices. Schools need to move away from having a logo on every piece of clothing and make uniforms in more basic colours and styles,” she added.

“Uniforms can reduce financial burdens on families. They mean parents don’t have to keep updating a range of clothes for their children to wear.

“They can also remove the stigma felt by many low-income families if they’re unable to afford labelled clothing other children many be wearing, but a lot of that benefit is offset by the cost.

“We have seen a lot of excellent community projects like uniform swap shops, but perhaps a more central approach could help ease the financial strain.”

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