Last week the government enshrined a new law that compels schools to ensure the costs of their uniforms are kept low, second-hand items are available and their uniform is environmentally friendly, too.
For heads and their senior leadership teams, this brings much to think about. Certainly for members of the Headteachers' Roundtable group, that we currently run as chair and vice-chair, there has been a lot of debate about the development.
Many recognise the need for the law, acknowledging that uniforms can be a costly burden on parents and sometimes even operate as "an admissions barrier" that puts off prospective parents and their children from considering a school.
Others said, though, that they already do much of what the law is trying to achieve, such as providing uniforms for disadvantaged pupils or providing all new starters in Year 7 with the bespoke items they need – often costing from £30,000 to £60,000.
More logistical work
With the new law in place, it is clear this must now be more formalised and, although it may bring benefits, it also means yet more work for SLTs.
For example, it will require many to instigate a review of their current provision, suppliers, costs and changes required – and then consider the views of pupils and parents before formalising a plan.
This will then need to be ratified by governors and enacted. All that work has to take place on top of everything else going on.
For some, this may be useful work and improve the lives of parents but many said it felt like more workload to formalise something they already do as a matter of course within their school community.
How will it be enforced?
Furthermore, there are questions abound about how the law will be enforced, as the law states compliance by September 2023, but it also accepts some schools may delay this date due to existing contracts with suppliers that have to be fulfilled.
Much of the language in the guidance is ambiguous, leaving individual schools and parents to risk conflict over what is deemed “affordable”, what is an acceptable “minimum” number of items on a required items list and even how long a “sensible transition period” is to any new uniform rules.
And how will this be monitored or benchmarked? What are schools aiming for against Department for Education expectations? Will best practice be shared in any formal manner?
One area that could have potentially caused consternation was a planned ban on sole suppliers of uniforms to schools. However, this has not come to pass in the law and so could well mean the issues of sole suppliers and their high price points remains a barrier to many parents on admission.
However, other members welcomed the ability to use a sole supplier as they noted it can often be the case the school has used that supplier for a long time and has a level of quality worth promoting to families as it can mean an item only has to be purchased once for several years use.
Moving to a system of requiring tendering for these items, and then potentially being compelled to choose the cheapest supplier, could end up becoming a false economy by compromising on quality.
For example, some pointed out that cheaper sports kits can often damage quickly and, if there is no standard item, it creates a situation where some use expensive designer clothes and others have cheaper items – thus exacerbating inequality.
It could also mean a lack of consistency in the overall look of items if simply using a cheaper supplier – thereby undermining much of the purpose of a uniform to create a feeling of community and fellowship.
Another thing on the to do list
Overall, though, there is a feeling the new law has come about not because of a sector-wide issue, but because the actions of some schools have resulted in wholesale changes that affect all.
The fact this has happened now, at a time of immense strains such as dealing with Covid academic catch-up efforts or ongoing teacher absences, feels like yet more work that many could do without.
Yet that is not to say there isn’t broad agreement of the intent of the new law. Anything that removes barriers or pressures on parents is to be welcome. Many parent-teachers could benefit from this change too let’s not forget.
However, there could have been a more measured approach, perhaps, that looked to identify schools that had overly onerous provisions and get them to make adjustments, rather than a blanket, all-school approach.
The new law is what it is. For many leaders, the work starts now to ensure they are compliant and any issues are ironed out ahead of September 2023.
Caroline Derbyshire and Caroline Barlow are chair and vice-chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable