Author Mark Richards

Millions of children have just gone back to school – and millions of parents’ bank accounts have suffered thanks to the high cost of school uniform. Is there nothing that can be done to help parents? And could Brexit offer a solution to the problem?

Monday morning – and I have just come into the office. I’m wearing trainers, black jeans, a t-shirt and my favourite grey jumper. Total cost? Around £75. I brought my lunch with me – in a Tesco carrier bag (so add another 5p) – and that is it. The project I was working on over the weekend? Do me a favour: all backed up in Dropbox. I cannot remember the last time I carried a file.

Meanwhile, my son and daughter have gone to school: it is their third week back after the summer holidays. New uniforms, new sports kit, new bags to carry it all in – all in the school colours, and all cheerfully (and expensively) adorned with the school crest.

…A crest which they re-designed last year: ‘a more modern design, in keeping with the school’s inclusive policy, designed to reflect our commitment to the future success of all our pupils.’ I could not agree more: you can just, just tell it is a different shade of blue. You could very definitely tell that the new blazers the new crest demanded cost £78 from the ‘official school supplier.’

So yes, my son’s school blazer cost more than all the clothes I am wearing for work. Two ‘official school kit bags’ to carry my children’s sports kit cost more than we will spend on Dropbox in a year.

Like millions of parents up and down the land my children have gone back to school and our bank account has taken a beating. And like millions of parents up and down the land I am scratching my head and wondering if I have not just been ripped off by a scam the Mafia would envy. Almost as if the school made me “an offer I couldn’t refuse…”

Why do schools have uniforms?

Let us take a step back and ask the obvious question. Why do schools even have uniforms? After all, I can do my work perfectly adequately in jeans and a t-shirt. And the majority of American schools do not have uniforms – and the US seems capable of turning out successful people.

I had better reach for the textbook…

School uniforms teach pupils to dress smartly and take pride in their appearance. Uniforms also remove peer pressure when it comes to choosing what to wear for school – “When everyone is dressed the same,” said one pupil, “You don’t have to worry about what you look like.” And head teachers and governors love uniforms.

“Our school uniform gives a clear sense of identity. It shows we are all striving for the same goal and that we are part of the same organisation.”

It is easy to be cynical about statements like that but – according to the Guardian – in America up to 160,000 students miss school every day due to fear of attack or intimidation by other students. True, this may not be directly linked to what they are wearing, but school uniforms supposedly offer a ‘safety net’ for students who might otherwise suffer from bullying.

I leave you to form your own opinion. The simple fact is that the majority of schools in the UK do have uniforms, and uniforms are expensive.

Why are uniforms so expensive?

I have just been on Amazon. A generic, black school blazer costs £24.99. Three outside pockets, zip pocket, mobile phone pocket, Teflon coated so your beloved offspring can spill their lunch on it… That will do nicely. Except it won’t because it does not have the school crest and it does not come from the approved supplier.

Can the Government do anything?

Theresa May swept into Downing Street promising to help the “JAMs:” those people that were ‘just about managing.’ I suspect a good few people would manage more easily if they paid £24 for a blazer instead of £78. And yet generations of politicians have ignored the concerns of parents. The taxman has not helped either: as some of you will know, there is VAT on children’s school clothing once they reach a certain age.

Why is there VAT on school uniform for older children?

Simply put, because adults could wear it too – and therefore (horror of horrors) buy cheaper clothing. Yes, the uniform in many secondary schools does include ‘plain items’ such as white shirts, navy jumpers and grey trousers that adults could also wear. Well, I have worked in offices for a large number of years now: I do remember one Friday being ‘Come to work in school uniform for Children in Need:’ I have to tell you that no-one wore a white shirt, navy jumper or grey trousers…

School uniform

Surely clothing could be exempt from VAT if it was clearly seen to be school uniform?

You would think so. However cheap it is, I am unlikely to buy a navy jumper if it is embroidered with ‘St Hilda’s Secondary School.’ So surely clothing like this could be exempt from VAT? In 1997 Conservative MP Tim Loughton suggested that school clothing made exactly that suggestion: the Labour Government under Tony Blair did not support the change in policy.

In 2016 David Cameron announced the end of the ‘tampon tax’ – the charging of VAT on women’s sanitary products. But many would argue this makes the situation with the VAT on school uniforms even more absurd, given that your teenage daughter can no more go to school without the correct blazer than she can go without sanitary protection.

Could Brexit come to the rescue?

I know how much you like complicated EU regulations on a Monday morning – but bear with me, because Brexit could offer hard-pressed parents a lifeline.

EU countries have been co-ordinating VAT rates since 1992 – the idea being that it removes unfair competition across national borders. Under EU rules, countries must apply a minimum VAT rate of 15% – but 0% is allowed for goods taxed at that rate before 1991, which means that children’s clothing and footwear in the UK is protected.

Clothes and footwear for older children – as we have already seen – is taxed at 20%. Under EU rules the Government could reduce that rate to 15%, but if the Government wanted to remove VAT on all schoolwear, then it would need the agreement of all the other 27 members of the EU. Not surprisingly, no British Government has ever tried to do this.

However, this restriction is likely to disappear after Brexit in March 2019 – meaning that a future UK Government would be free to remove VAT on all school uniforms, instantly reducing the price by 20%.

Whether they will or not is another matter: after all VAT on school uniform contributes very nicely to the Government’s coffers. So in the meantime, like millions of other parents, I will need to do extra work to cover the cost of the annual ‘back to school’ racket. At least I can save on my own clothes: I am not ‘customer facing.’ But if my son goes to school without the right blazer he most certainly will be ‘head-teacher facing…’