The Education Minister has slammed schools for not following the advice of the department and making school uniforms available at an affordable price.
ichelle McIlveen said she has now instructed departmental officials to begin the process of implementing statutory guidelines to force schools to make uniforms more affordable to families who are struggling to pay for items which some schools deem ‘essential’.
Ms McIlveen said that while many schools have followed the guidelines to make uniforms available at a reasonable cost, too many are still ignoring the guidelines and cashing in by forcing financially strained parents to fork out for exclusive items which can be bought at reduced prices elsewhere.
It comes after the BBC revealed that a quarter of post primary schools in Northern Ireland are benefiting either financially or ‘in kind’ from exclusive deals with sportswear manufacturers who supply them with PE merchandise.
A Freedom of Information request, covering a four-year period up to the beginning of the last academic year, showed that commercial arrangements are in place across grammar, secondary and integrated schools in Northern Ireland.
Around 50 schools provided details of commercial arrangements, although several schools cited “commercial sensitivities” for refusing to provide the information on what arrangements they had in place.
Most of the schools had not previously published details of their agreements with particular sports companies, but one grammar school revealed how, between 2017/2018 and 2020/2021, it received almost £40,000 in “commission” through an exclusive contract with a manufacturer.
Another said six staff members are provided with free sports kit each year.
One added that although a deal had not resulted in direct funding, its sportswear partner had donated kits to underprivileged students, including refugee and asylum seeking pupils.
The news will be difficult for many parents to take as they struggle to find the money for new uniforms ahead of the new term in September, with an average uniform spend on a single child estimated at around £378 in a recent survey from the campaign group the Parent Support Group.
Although it is common for schools to have made arrangements with local suppliers, most revealed they had deals with major sportswear brands including O’Neills, Canterbury and Kukri.
Some schools did not describe their arrangements with these companies as “commercial” however they did admit clothing linked to these companies is worn by students, a percentage of sales (about 10%) is returned to the schools, and hundreds of pounds have been donated each year for events including prizegiving ceremonies.
The Education Minister said she has been left “very disappointed” that some schools have not followed the guidelines issues by the Department on uniform costs, particularly as parents struggle in the cost of living crisis, and said she is not committed to addressing the situation by bringing in statutory measures which are already in place elsewhere in the UK.
“I’m very mindful of the challenges faced by families in relation to the cost of living and I understand the financial pressure that purchasing school uniforms can place on families, particularly those on lower incomes,” she said.
“Individual schools are responsible for their school uniform policy and I believe that families at each school rightly expect their school to ensure that uniform is as affordable as possible.
“My department has issued very clear guidelines on this issue urging schools to take action. Many have and I commend them for doing the right thing to help families.
“However, I’m very disappointed that some schools have failed to take steps to reduce costs. So I’m taking action.
“I’ve instructed my officials to identify an approach that will seek to ensure, on a statutory basis, that schools are required to make their school uniform more affordable in future years.”
That could mean a price cap being put on uniform costs.
“I think that it could be a challenge,” the Minister added, “but it’s something that we have to look at and it’s certainly something that is being explored.
“I have asked officials to speak to the legal team to see what we can do with the parameters of that guidance just to strengthen it and to make things easier for parents.
“As late as May, we reminded schools that they have an obligation to ensure that costs are not prohibitive.”