Education minister Lord Agnew often seems to be on the scent of something or other. Last year, seeking waste and inefficiencies in schools, he likened himself to a “pig out hunting for truffles”. This week he’s sounding like that bar-room wag who asks: “So, why is there only one Monopolies Commission?”
The monopolies in his sights are sole suppliers of school uniform. The context was a select-committee hearing on Wednesday.
The minister was responding to concerns raised by the Labour MP Emma Hardy about the costs faced by parents who are told they have to buy uniforms from one approved supplier, or an expectation that only branded items of clothing will do.
“On the issue of these monopoly-type deals, I want to go after them,” declared Lord Agnew. “I hate monopolists in every form that they come, and this is particularly pernicious.”
Give that man a bottle of Liebfraumilch, if only to lower his blood pressure (here’s the link to explain that reference).
Keeping down costs
But Lord Agnew has a point, because at a time of desperate levels of family poverty, we must be ever-mindful of keeping down costs for parents and carers.
The trouble is that his department’s guidance on the subject of school uniform “monopolists” does not seem as definitive as the academies minister on this issue.
This is what it says (the italics are mine): “Exclusive single-supplier contracts should be avoided unless regular tendering competitions are run where more than one supplier can compete for the contract and where best value for parents is secured.”
I guess we could argue about the definition of a monopoly, but the bigger point is that these things are, as ever, more complex than first meets the eye.
Of course, the cost of school uniforms should not be excessive, and certainly not to the point of discouraging particular families from sending their particular child to a particular school. That would be a nefarious and underhand form of selection.
Indeed, it would be a breach of the School Admissions Code, 2012, which states: “Admission authorities must ensure that…policies around school uniform or school trips do not discourage parents from applying for a place for their child.”
However, there remains a widely acknowledged value in having a school uniform.
While society generally has become less formal in its expectations of how people dress, many schools retain a uniform policy that establishes among pupils a sense of identity and pride in their school. It’s a social equaliser, serving also as a proxy for behaviour, by establishing clear boundaries to young people to which they are expected to conform.
The Department for Education guidance acknowledges this link between school uniform and culture: “The department strongly encourages schools to have a uniform, as it can play a valuable role in contributing to the ethos of a school and setting an appropriate tone.”
Which leaves us with the question of how to achieve the right balance between having a uniform and ensuring that it is affordable.
Emma Hardy, an MP for whom I have the greatest respect, clearly feels some schools are getting the balance wrong. Similarly, the chair of the Competitions and Markets Authority says it receives a surge of complaints every summer about the cost of uniforms.
Given that there are more than 20,000 state schools in England, it would be difficult for me to state categorically that all of them are getting it right. But I represent more than 19,000 leaders and visit many schools and colleges.
And my sense is that the vast majority are doing their best, along with their governing boards, to strike a reasonable balance between expecting young people to exemplify a school’s values and doing so at a reasonable cost to parents and carers.
In fact, last night I looked at the online uniform policies of a couple of randomly chosen schools, to see how they handled this issue.
The first included a blazer with logo, a plain white shirt, school tie, grey trousers, plain black footwear, and a PE polo shirt featuring the school crest.
The second listed charcoal trousers or skirt, a white shirt, a jumper with the school logo, a school tie and smart black shoes.
I am guessing that different people will have different reactions to these lists. Some will consider them reasonable; some will object to the branded items.
And that is the difficulty in establishing definitive guidance about uniform policies. Which is probably why the existing Department for Education documentation is so vague.
It says: “The school uniform should be easily available for parents to purchase, and schools should seek to select items that can be purchased cheaply, for example in a supermarket or other good value shop. Schools should keep compulsory branded items to a minimum and avoid specifying expensive items of uniform, eg expensive outdoor coats.”
This is all very reasonable, but how many branded items should be deemed acceptable, and what’s an appropriate level of expenditure for parents and carers, given that they would be buying clothes for their children anyway if there were no school uniform?
In the light of recent discussions, it is surely time to have another go at that government guidance, notwithstanding the difficulty of getting to something definitive. Perhaps some illustrative examples of good practice would help.
Lord Agnew has indicated he would be happy to amend the guidance, and we would be happy to help him do that with input from school leaders.
But we must also reaffirm that the decision about what’s the right dress code will continue to lie with school leaders and governors, through consultation with student councils and parents.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton