For many schools, pupils’ dress and appearance are an important part of reflecting the quality of their brand. So they rigorously enforce policies to ensure that skirts are not too short and haircuts not too unruly. Parents are on the whole supportive of schools taking this firm line, being quick to comment adversely on the state of pupils spotted on local buses.
But seeking to maintain quality and consistency by selecting particular uniform suppliers, and placing restrictions on these outlets, may in future prove a step too far.
Last month, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) sent an open letter to headteachers, governing bodies and suppliers about school uniform costs and value for money. It believes that the practice of restricted suppliers could have led to a cost increase of £5 to £10 per item. As a result, it is concerned that the practice could breach competition law, particularly where schools have agreed to long-term exclusive arrangements with particular suppliers.
This letter was addressed primarily to state-funded schools, but the CMA is also encouraging independent schools to review their arrangements. The CMA notes that 74 per cent of state schools place restrictions on where uniforms can be obtained. This proportion is likely to be higher in the independent sector.
The CMA is advising schools to review current practices and take action where those arrangements do not appear to be offering value for money.
The CMA believes that increasing competition is likely to result in greater choice for parents and carers, and will encourage suppliers and retailers to offer improved deals to win new business.
The CMA has confirmed that it will continue to look into whether school uniform arrangements are anti-competitive and whether enforcement action should be taken. So if you haven’t started looking at this area, you had better start soon.
What are the consequences of breaching competition law requirements?
• There are a wide range of sanctions for breaches of competition law, including fines for organisations of up to 10 per cent of their turnover. In some instances criminal sanctions apply to individuals.
• Schools will be conscious of possible damage to their reputation if they are found to have acted in an anti-competitive way, particularly if this has had a negative impact on parents.
• Putting the spotlight on this issue may lead to an increased number of parental complaints, or schools facing challenges where parents are sourcing uniforms from alternative suppliers or not complying with strict uniform requirements.
What should schools do?
Schools are advised to:
• Review current uniform arrangements to ensure that there is competition between suppliers and retailers.
• Where an exclusive supplier or retailer has been appointed, consider whether this can be justified and ensure that the arrangement is subject to competitive tender on a regular basis (at least every three years).
• Consider Department for Education best practice on developing a school uniform policy, which places an emphasis on the need to secure value for money when selecting school uniform suppliers and retailers.
• Listen to concerns voiced by parents and carers about affordability, and look at whether these might be addressed by the use of more generic items sourced from a wider variety of outlets (including supermarkets).
• Continue to meet regularly with suppliers and retailers to ensure quality and affordability are maintained.
Alice Reeve is a partner at leading education law firm Veale Wasbrough Vizards
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