WANDER INTO Tesco or Asda towards the end of the summer holidays and it is hard not to trip over signs promoting uniforms at bargain prices. The cost of standard school clothing, such as black trousers and blazers, has plummeted. Parents can buy a basic jumper, shirt and trousers for just pound;11.
However, a Which? report published yesterday found that some parents were still paying over the odds. They complained that they were being forced into buying overpriced uniforms from specialist shops or from schools. The difference between these uniforms, and those in the supermarkets was often little more than a badge.
Which? compared items from both sources for wear and tear as well as for shrinkage after washing. In three out of four tests there was little or no difference in quality. The report follows a study last year by the Office of Fair Trading, which calculated that restricting parental choice was costing families an extra pound;45 million a year. It urged governors to let parents buy uniforms from a range of outlets.
The Department for Education and Skills makes clear in its guidance that governors should "give high priority to cost considerations" surrounding uniforms so that no child or parent feels excluded. But is it worth having uniforms at all? Countries with highly respected education systems - such as Sweden - do perfectly well without them, though where studies of their impact have been conducted, such as in America, the evidence is unclear.
Pupils at King Edward VI community college in Totnes, south Devon, asked if they wanted to retain the school uniform in 2003, voted to wear their own clothes instead of the regulation blue sweatshirt, white polo shirt and black trousers.
Stephen Jones, the principal, said: "There was quite a lot of anxiety about what it would lead to. But there has been no bullying, no fashion wars, no behaviour problems. And there has been no decline in exam results."
Indeed, the school's GCSE results have improved, with the proportion getting five A* to C grades rising from 44 per cent in 2003 to 58 per cent last year.
Mr Jones believes the perception that school uniforms promote good learning dates from Britain's colonial past and is based on power and control and not on learning. There is no evidence in the educational world that students do better in tests if they wear school uniform, he said.
In the 1960s and 1970s many comprehensives chose to abandon them. Over the past two decades, however, uniforms have made a comeback, partly as a result of the marketisation of state education, which has put greater pressure on schools to impress parents.
A DfES spokesman said: "Heads who turn around failing schools tell us that uniforms play an important part in their work to raise standards."
One school that has seen such a transformation is Hillcrest at Netherton, West Midlands. Hillcrest was in special measures when Dame Maureen Brennan took over as principal in 2000.
Last week inspectors gave Hillcrest a glowing report. It was "outstanding", they said.
Dame Maureen said the uniform had reduced bullying, theft and the cost to parents, who would no longer spend pound;150 on a fashionable jacket for their child.
"By introducing a uniform we removed social, economic and class divisions,"
Dame Maureen said. "We have instilled a sense of pride in our pupils."
GLOBAL U's AND NON-U'S
Countries where vast majority of state schools have uniforms: India, Japan, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, Malaysia Countries where no, or almost no, state schools have uniforms: Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, USA. In the US, compulsory uniforms are starting to be introduced as a selling point in "charter schools" - privately backed independent state schools, similar to Britain's academies.
In Germany, a minority of schools have "school outfits", which are usually T-shirts or anoraks in a choice of bright colours and carrying the school logo. Dark-coloured uniforms are frowned upon because they evoke associations with the brown shirts of the Hitler Youth or the blue shirts and blouses worn by teenagers at communist parades in the old East Germany.