HC Deb 04 December 1956 vol 561 cc1205-10

11.12 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I shall try to keep my remarks on school uniforms short, in view of the lack of time. The main point about the uniforms that must be borne in mind is that since the war there has been a great increase in the number of children of people of limited means who are attending secondary grammar and secondary modern schools and who are required by those schools to wear school uniform. This requirement is an excellent thing, because it prevents any kind of snobbish approach to clothing on the part of the parents or the children, it provides for neatness and tidiness of garb, and prevents any outlandish costumes being worn in schools, as sometimes is the case where there are no school uniform regulations. But it has led to certain difficulties which were the subject of Questions to the Minister of Education in the House on 28th June, which I want to elaborate a little.

In the first place, the nature of school uniforms is determined by the head teachers, who in most parts of the country appear to have absolute discretion about the number of items and where a school uniform should be purchased. That means that parents in many areas are rightly aggrieved, because they have to buy the school uniforms at one particular shop, whether they wish to do so or not, since the uniforms are usually of a distinctive character and the school stipulates that they should be bought at that shop.

It involves a monopoly for the shop which many parents feel is quite wrong, because it means that the shop concerned has no incentive to be competitive in its prices or its quality. If the parents wish to buy the uniforms from their normal suppliers, where they know that they will get good value, they are unable to do so. I refer particularly to members of a Cooperative society who are obliged to purchase from the school shop whether they wish to do so or not. That is one point on which very strong feeling is expressed by parents, and I have had a number of complaints from different parts of the country.

The other part is that school uniforms are often unnecessarily complicated. The head teachers have the power to choose the uniform. Very often they choose one of unusual colour or type in order to make it distinct from that of other schools. This is understandable, but it adds greatly to the cost of the uniform. Manufacturers do not like the practice for the simple reason that they would much prefer to supply standard colours and standard materials. Parents, of course, do not like it because these unusual colours and materials are expensive to produce, and they have to pay the extra cost.

There are, I understand, talks going on between the manufacturers and the British Standards Institution on this particular point; but I feel that head teachers should be encouraged to keep uniforms as simple and few in number of items as they possibly can. A good deal rests with the Minister in this respect because head teachers are susceptible to what he says to them through local education committees. In my own constituency, the education committee wrote a letter to the head teachers in June last year after there had been complaints about school uniforms being available in only one shop. The committee asked head teachers to try to ensure that distinctive school uniforms should be available at more than one shop, including that of the London Co-operative Society, since some parents had complained about that particular point.

Nothing more was heard until February of this year, when the head teachers adopted the line that they were alarmed that the local education committee was, so to speak, issuing instructions on this matter. The Committee reconsidered the matter, and reaffirmed its decision. The head teachers were so informed. If I may say so, this illustrates one of the difficulties because it was obvious that the head teachers felt that the committee was going beyond the bounds of what was permissible in taking action to try to make uniforms more generally available.

If a circular could be sent by the Minister to local education authorities, requiring them to give greater freedom of choice as to where uniforms might be purchased, I do think that would strengthen the hands of the authorities in approaching head teachers; and furthermore it would encourage those local committees which have not yet approached head teachers, to do so. That would also be of great value to parents. I have had many complaints from parents who think that something should be done. I do repeat that this would be a service, especially if the Minister also asked head teachers to keep the school uniform requirements as simple as possible.

I see that the Parliamentary Secretary is to answer tonight, and I should like to ask him whether his right hon. Friend has come to any conclusion in the matter of the investigation which in reply to a Question which I asked in the House on 28th June, he said he was carrying out. If any decision has been made, I should like to know the result of the investigation, and whether it covered the colours and quality of uniforms about which the Women's Advisory Committee of the British Standards Institution complained. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman can tell me whether anything has been done about the issues of monopoly services and price? The Minister said on 28th June, I shall keep in touch with the Institution"— that is, the British Standards Institution— so that I can consider whether there is any action which I can usefully take."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th June, 1956; Vol. 555, c. 679.] Has the Minister, as a result, considered whether there is any action which he can take about the standards or any other aspect of this question?

I can assure the Parliamentary Secretary that this is a very important question to a very large number of parents. If the Minister can take some action to help them get better value for money in respect of school uniforms in the various ways which I have suggested, he will be doing a real service to them.

11.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Dennis Vosper)

I sympathise with the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) in the difficulties which she has encountered in raising this important topic on the Adjournment. However, I congratulate her in succeeding where two of her colleagues have failed, because they gave notice on 28th June that they wished to raise the same subject.

I thank the hon. Lady for the very moderate and constructive way in which she has approached the problem. I was glad to hear her say that she was in full support of the principle of having school uniforms. I think that is generally accepted for a variety of reasons. For myself, I think school uniforms help pupils to take a pride in themselves and their school. It is a fact that, for one reason or another, the wearing of school uniforms is on the increase and is now spreading from the grammar schools to the secondary modern schools. I should make it clear that this development does not stem from any statutory requirement but is a natural growth. I do not think it is a trend which hon. Members would wish to discourage.

I appreciate, and accept, the hon. Lady's contention that uniforms of good quality should be available at a reasonable price. One of our difficulties is the absence of evidence to the contrary. Apart from what the hon. Lady has said tonight, apart from the Report of the British Standards Institution, to which I hope to allude later, and apart from the Parliamentary Questions to which the hon. Lady referred, there is a conspicuous lack of complaints on the subject.

Parents are not normally slow to complain to their Members of Parliament or to the Minister, but it is a fact that during the two years that I have been occupying my present position I have not received a single letter on the subject. Indeed, very few letters on the subject have been received by the Department.

Since the subject was raised at Question Time in June, I have been to a number of schools and have asked specific questions on the subject. I must say that I can find little evidence to support that there is a really serious problem here. Nevertheless, I was interested to hear what the hon. Lady said. If she would like to give me more specific evidence of the complaints from her constituency and elsewhere, it would be helpful to my Department.

I should like to make one reference to the British Standards Institution Report. There has been a slight misunderstanding about it. I am informed that the Report was sent to between 15,000 and 20,000 women, and they were asked to comment on the problem. Only 135 did so, which is less than 1 per cent. of those asked. Possibly it was not made sufficiently clear at the time that a surprisingly large number of the letters were in support of the present practice, the writers saying that they had no complaints against the type, price or quality of the school uniforms. That is important, because members of the public do not normally reply when they are expressing satisfaction.

I mention all this, not to defend the present position, but to explain that the absence of evidence makes it difficult to assess the problem and deal with it. The problem, as I understand it, is twofold. First, do the schools themselves set too high or too expensive a standard in uniforms? Secondly, do the manufacturers and retailers respond with satisfactory garments?

The hon. Lady had the first problem particularly in mind. I accept that the decision as to what shall constitute a school uniform rests with individual schools and presumably with their head teachers, but I think it is unlikely that, generally speaking, the head teacher will impose a higher standard than his governors or managers or local education committee are willing to approve. My right hon. Friend would most certainly deprecate anything requiring undue expense. I will most certainly investigate any specific examples which are brought to our notice. One complaint which has recently come to our notice from the south-west of England is being investigated by the local education authority.

The hon. Lady suggested that my right hon. Friend should issue a circular, I will bear that consideration in mind. It is possible that these words may receive some publicity. I should also like to await the Report from the British Standards Institution, which might provide a possible course of action.

But I do not believe that there is any need for expense of the nature which has been mentioned by the hon. Lady. I visited a number of schools recently and I found most satisfactory and attractive uniforms, particularly in girls' schools. Most of the garments were being provided for very little additional cost because they would have had to be purchased by the parents for normal use in any case. If schools are setting expensive standards I hope that parents will exert the necessary pressure on local education authorities and, if necessary, report to the Minister or to their own Members of Parliament. I would not accept that a group of parents, feeling that they were being asked to contribute unreasonably, would be powerless to take effective action and have some change made.

As regards the manufacture and distribution of garments, my right hon. Friend has been in touch with the British Standards Institution, who inform him that some progress has been made since the matter was raised in June. He was told that whilst manufacturers do not admit that there is any large volume of unsatisfactory garments on the market they recognise that a minority of poor quality goods may prejudice the reputation of the trade. They think that, in part, it may be due to the fact that parents themselves buy for appearance rather than durability.

Manufacturers have told the British Standards Institution that they recognise the need for a hard-wearing, medium-priced garment, and are at present actively engaged with manufacturers of cloth in trying to produce a cloth which will meet the need. It will inevitably take time, both to produce a range of fabrics and to carry out the necessary wearing trials, before one or more could be marketed on any scale, but I am sure that the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that some progress has been made.

I should like to make it clear that the British Standards Institution is concerned solely with quality and not with retail practices and prices. I believe that any developments which may result from this investigation will be welcomed by the retailers who, I am sure, are anxious to co-operate in the production and sale of satisfactory garments.

I believe that these discussions may result in a guaranteed range of garments which will ensure an improvement both in price and quality. That, together with a possibly greater awareness on the part of parents and local education authorities that my right hon. Friend, whilst accepting the principle of school uniforms, would deprecate expensive school uniforms, may have the effect which the hon. Lady desires. In that sense I believe that her intervention tonight may have achieved a useful purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.