POORER parents are struggling to afford school uniforms as local authorities slash clothing grants, according to new research.
A report by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux highlights worries that schools' growing concern with their pupils' image is placing too heavy a burden on parents. One Surrey school singled out for criticism has introduced a new uniform including an expensive pound;45 blazer that is only available from one supplier. The blazer is in a different style for boys and girls making it harder to pass down to younger siblings.
The report shows that the availability and level of financial help from LEAs has declined dramatically since 1990.
As a result, it says advice bureaux are increasingly being approached by parents of youngsters threatened with exclusion from school because they cannot afford the correct uniform, which can cost up to pound;275.
Around a third of LEAs provide no help towards the costs of uniforms, while nine have slashed or abolished their grants since 2000.
Those that do offer some assistance usually operate very strict eligibility criteria. The problem is exacerbated by a trend in schools to introduce ever stricter uniform policies that are now often applied with "military precision".
Katie Lane, author of the report and a member of the NACB's social policy team, said: "Schools could do much to reduce the pressure on low-income families, including having a simple colour-based school uniform that can be purchased from a variety of stores so parents can shop around.
"We also recommend that they offer good quality second-hand stalls at parents' evenings and explore the possibility of bulk-purchase items that can be sold to parents at a discount."
While welcoming the revision of guidelines on uniforms issued by the Department for Education and Skills in spring 2002, which discourages "designer" uniforms and encourages use of "off the peg" items, the NACB is calling for a national minimum standard of help with uniform costs.
Meanwhile, school uniform style continues to keep up with the latest high-street fashions. Uniform manufacturers are predicting that trendy fleece-style tops will be the essential feature of the uniform of the future.
Nick Anderson, managing director of Valentines, which supplies clothing to around 25 schools across the country, said that there had been an enormous increase in demand for school fleeces over the past year.