Pivotal

Author

Naomi McBurney

Naomi McBurney

Published

Every summer it’s the same old story, Northern Ireland’s airwaves and frontpages are dominated by conversations around the impact of the uncapped cost of school uniforms and PE kits. This deepening shadow is preventing many children from enjoying their right to education. 

Not only is it an issue that is long past its due date for political action but something the public are quite frankly tired of talking about. Since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive there has been a welcome focus on the issue from both the Education Minister and MLAs. This focus is long overdue and it is crucial that the momentum is not lost.

In August 2023 we commissioned LucidTalk to run a poll around the issue. The evidence is stark and revealed: 

  • 1 in 10 parents in Northern Ireland said their child has missed out on school due to issues relating to school uniform or PE kit. 
  • 1 in 3 parents have had to borrow money to cover the cost of school uniforms and PE kits. 
  • 6 in 10 find the cost of school uniforms and PE kits financially challenging. 
    • For low–income families this rises to over 7 in 10 (73%)
    • For middle–income families it is almost 5 in 10 (49%)

In addition, 99% of the public polled do not support the current arrangements and want action to be taken to alleviate the financial pressure. Although there is widespread support for the retention of school uniforms, the qualitative data revealed a picture of frustration, mistrust, and anger towards schools who many argue are removing agency and choice from struggling families.

“The school insists on branded sportswear for PE in the school colours that can only be purchased directly from the school. It is a money–making racket!!!”
Direct quote taken from the poll data 

Research from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) estimates that it costs families across the UK £864.87 per year to send a child to primary school and £1,755.97 for a post–primary pupil – that is simply to meet minimum educational needs. School uniforms are one of the most expensive elements at an estimated annual cost of £352.86 for a primary school child and £481.77 for a post–primary child.

These stark figures point to the fact that change must happen sooner rather than later. We need to tackle the systemic issues that have got us here. Schools haven’t always relied upon branded and crested items as a marketing tool so why have they become so entrenched within our education system? 

With the Department of Education reporting record levels of school absenteeism, an issue closely linked to achievement, schools need to do all they can to ensure that barriers to attending are removed. In 2023 1 in 10 parents said their child has missed out on school due to issues relating to school uniform or PE kit. This is simply not acceptable. Change to school uniform policies must come and decision–making stakeholders must commit to driving the change, to ensure no more children miss out. 

“This issue has plagued families for generations. It needs addressed now.”
Direct quote taken from the poll data 

At Save the Children we are calling for urgent action that addresses the widespread financial strain felt by families across Northern Ireland. We know this can only be achieved by involving children, young people, and parents in the decision–making process. 

  • Our starting point is to call on the Department of Education to introduce statutory guidance with an embedded price cap that will not only provide families with protection from unaffordable and unreasonable demands on their finances, but also offers schools clear direction on what is affordable. 
  • To reach agreement on affordability the department should establish an independent panel that is made up of a range of stakeholders with children and young people central to the decision–making. 
  • To strengthen support for children living in poverty the Department of Education should urgently review the grant threshold to ensure no child misses out. 
  • We know the Department of Education can’t turn the tide alone therefore schools should take immediate action to ensure their school uniform policy is not an unnecessary barrier to accessing education.

The need for change can no longer be ignored. With the political will firmly banked, change is coming, and all stakeholders need to move forward with that change before another summer of woes comes around for under pressure families.

Naomi McBurneySave the Children, Policy and Public Affairs Adviser

 

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