As if hard pressed families didn’t have enough to worry about, August is the time when yet another extortionate – and unnecessary high – expenditure arises. The annual school uniform shop.

Earlier in the year, The Children’s Society announced that parents spend on average £287 on primary and £422 a year on secondary school uniforms. And that’s before the cost of ‘branded’ items kicks in. The charity reported that costs were so high, some families were opting not to go on holiday in order to pay for uniforms.

According to The Children’s Society’s study, coats and bags were the most expensive purchases, costing £75 per child annually. Next are sports shoes and boots for PE, averaging at £63 per child per year. School shoes came in at £62, blazers at £46, skirts and dresses at £46, and jumpers and ties at £40.

And if that wasn’t enough to ram home the pressure that families are under, Scope, the disability equality charity, found in a recent poll that 55% of parents were considering buying second hand uniforms.

While many parents tell me they approve of the concept of a ‘basic’ school uniform to ensure equality and consistency among young people during their school years, they object strongly to being forced in to spending excessive sums on branded goods or using specific retailers who have a monopoly on uniforms.

Frankly, I think the fact that some schools are putting this pressure on people during the cost-of-living crisis is unacceptable. There are loads of budget ‘generic’ school uniforms available at supermarkets and low-cost retailers so why are schools ignoring this? Surely it’s acceptable to iron or sew a school crest or logo on to a basic jacket?

In this week’s column, I’ve done my best to come up with some tips to help struggling families avoid costs. But firstly, let’s take a look at what the law and the Government say…

Wait, isn’t it illegal to overcharge for school uniforms?

One of the biggest complaints I hear from parents is the fact that some, if not all, items on the annual purchase list, from blazers to PE kits, have to be either branded or purchased from a specific retailer. Something that traps parents in to unavoidable costs.

I’m currently being asked by readers if this is even legal, given the Government has passed a law on the cost of school uniforms.

The Government has issued ‘statutory guidance’ via the Department of Education, on school uniform policy. This basically means that schools and local authorities must comply with the guidance, especially when it sets out the law, in this case the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Act 2021.

If you’d like a plain English overview of the rules, you can read the official guidance here

The problem with the law and the guidance is even though it is clear that schools should ensure their uniform options are ‘affordable’ it doesn’t specify what affordable means in real terms. Branded items must be kept ‘to a minimum’ but again, that isn’t quantified. In addition, single supplier tenders ‘should be avoided’ but there are exceptions.

Clearly, this allows some schools to skirt around the law and allow excessive uniform costs to remain and rise. The guidance, though issued with the best of intentions, is too easy to exploit or ignore. Which means the Government need to step in and tighten up the rules.

Worryingly, many readers are saying that their school hasn’t updated its policy to reflect the new rules, while others argue they are locked in to tenders for 5 years with single suppliers.

How to save money on the school uniform shop

I’ve spoken to a wide range of experts, charities and parent’s groups to put together some tips to help you save some cash on the uniform shop. But I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t acknowledge that some of the suggestions might not work where schools are ignoring the Government guidance.

I appreciate that parents might not want to rock the boat when it comes to appealing directly to the school, but that’s what you have to do. Asking the school to come up with proposals when you explain your financial situation puts the ball back in to their court. After all, if they are putting unreasonable expectations on parents, it’s their job to come up with alternatives. The board of Governors might also be an option, particularly if you can’t speak to anyone senior at the school over August.

Go local

Finding the best money saving options for families depends very much on where you live. Sadly, some parts of the UK are very well served when it comes to charity shops, uniform exchanges and school support schemes, while others aren’t.

I’ve checked the options for twelve towns randomly in every part of the UK and found that all had some form of scheme to help people struggling financially with the cost of uniforms. However, some towns are better served than others. It’s also not easy to find these schemes online either. So look for local community groups, school websites, WhatsApp and Facebook groups. If your searches aren’t proving productive, you can improve your search drive results by starting with the name of your town or school and ‘second hand’ ‘uniform exchange’ and ‘uniform discount schemes’ if you aren’t getting anywhere. Your local council may also have advice on its website.

Charity shops and other retailers

Charity and second-hand stores offer a range of uniform options, often of good quality, given how quickly children grow. And you won’t be alone in shopping in charity shops. According to Debbie Boylen, Scope’s Head of Retail, a quarter of parents of children of school age are much more likely to report that they have been shopping more in charity shops since the cost-of-living crisis.

And it’s not just second-hand items either. Debbie gives the example that Scope’s Andover store sells brand new items from retail partners who wish to remain anonymous. These items can retail for as little as £1-5, with some offers including a school dress for £2 or three for £5. Other Scope outlets have a range of brand-new donations too alongside previously worn, but as good as new items.

Online, there are a range of options from both second-hand and new retailers. I’d thoroughly scrutinise the photos and description though. And bear in mind that many (but not exclusively) foreign companies are often accused of selling rubbish quality items that are hard or pricy to return.

Uniform exchanges

Many schools, community groups and Parent Teacher Associations operate uniform exchanges in your local area. It’s likely that there will be a high demand in some areas, so make sure you find out when the exchanges are open and how they assess need.

Of course, these exchanges only work if the cycle of giving continues to happen. So why not join your local group and send out friendly reminders to encourage people to clear out the kid’s wardrobes, especially those of school leavers?

Grants and Government support

Depending on whether you live in England, Scotland Wales or Northern Ireland, there are school uniform grants available. Criteria and grants vary, but here’s how you claim:

In the UK you go through your local council. Get started here

In Scotland, you can combine applying for the grant with applying for free school meals.

Here’s how to apply in Wales

And here’s how you get started in Northern Ireland

Hit the supermarkets

For years now, the larger supermarkets that stock clothes have engaged in something of a price war over who can offer the cheapest generic school uniforms. This has resulted in some ridiculously cheap deals, though do check things like the quality of the fabric. Children are, by their nature, likely to put whatever you buy through the wringer, so buying lower quality items can be a false economy if your child is ‘outgoing!’

On the outskirts of some cities, you might find that some of the bigger outlet stores have some much cheaper options available too, though these tend to be ‘first come, first served’.

Buy bigger

A favourite option of my mother and countless others when I was growing up (though not us kids) is buying items a size or so bigger so children can ‘age in to them’. This is more effective with things like long trousers and blazers that can be let out easily.

You might also be tempted to buy in bulk, but be wary of some of these deals though. It’s been reported that some multipack offers aren’t any cheaper than single or double packs. So just buy what you need.

Discounts and vouchers

There are a dizzying array of voucher codes, websites, discounts and other deals out there. I’m a little wary of voucher code websites that want you to add in your personal details. After all, you should ask yourself what’s in it for them and question what they are doing with your data.

But there are also loads of loyalty schemes with some of the major retailers out there that can give you points and discounts. Loyalty cards can also save you some cash, but watch out for any card that charges you interest for items that you purchase.

Don’t borrow to pay for uniforms

One word of warning. Some people have told me that they are being targeted by buy now, pay later offers for uniforms, or even worse, high-interest loans. If this is the case, then I have a number of concerns about the behaviour of these businesses.

Buy now, pay later might look harmless, but every week I hear from people who claim to have been transferred to debt collectors for falling behind for a month or two in making their payments. And high interest loans are even more of a worry. These are just payday loans repackaged so they run over a longer period of time.

If you are struggling financially, Times Money Mentor has a range of guides to help you get on top of your cashflow and even save thousands by identifying and cancelling regular payments you don’t want or need.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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