HC Deb 26 October 1976 vol 918 cc431-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Frank R. White.]

11.28 p.m.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the question of school uniform grants, though I have two reservations. First, I am not a believer in school uniform. I find it odd that secondary schools try to encourage pupils to show self-expression in the use of English, in drama and in art, that they encourage pupils to make decisions and exercise choice, and yet deny them self-expression when it comes to what they should wear in school. However, I accept that many schools demand uniform and that it will be a long time before we can change that.

My second reservation is that ideally the Government should be trying to abolish school uniform grants. One of the major aims of trying to introduce a generous child benefit was to remove the need for fragmented means-tested grants such as this. If the Government had been able to introduce for next Easter a generous child benefit scheme I should not be raising the subject now. Sadly, the Government have not been able to introduce the generous level of child benefit that I wanted to see. Therefore, it is important that the Government review the many fragmented forms of benefit and consider whether they can he improved.

What is the position of grant towards school clothing? What is the position of the Department of Education and Science? The Department states: It is to be hoped that in any review of school clothing arrangements, authorities will bear in mind the position of poorer parents and ensure that grants towards the cost of distinctive clothing such as school uniform are adequate as Section 81 of the Education Act, 1944 puts it, 'for the purpose of enabling pupils to take advantage without hardship to themselves or their parents of any educational facilities available to them.' That is what the Act states and what the Department says in interpretation of it, but what happens in practice is often very different. It seems that on the whole the schools rather than the education authorities decide what uniform they want. They often do that with no regard to how much grant is available in their local area. If they take that factor into account, very often they provide two lists to the parents of children entering the schools, one containing what is called essential school uniform and the other what is described as desirable school uniform. However, in a variety of ways they put pressure on the parents to conform not only to the essential list but to the desirable list.

When we talk to 12-year old girls or boys entering secondary school we find that they are concerned not to be different from other pupils. They tend to go to the full excesses of any list that is supplied by the school rather than limiting themselves to the essential items. Many schools are asking parents to spend about £50 a year on school uniform and clothing that they consider essential. It cannot be said that the whole of the £50 is being spent as a result of the school uniform as it is obvious that the children have to go to school in clothes. However, there is much evidence that school pressure probably doubles the cost to the parent. Instead of having a cost of possibly £25 to clothe a child adequately for a year so that he or she can attend school, the demand for the school uniform means that the cost is doubled.

I am aware that there is great variation from school to school. Some schools still have elaborate uniforms. They go in for blazers with fancy beading down the sides and a woven badge on the pocket. Other schools go in for much simpler uniform, merely saying that they would like pupils to wear clothes of the same colour—for example, either blue or grey.

Just as the demands from schools vary, so does the response of many local authorities. There is great variation in the means tests that local authorities apply. There are also great variations in the amount of grant and the frequency of grant that local authorities make. From all the information that I can gather, it is clear that over the past two or three years grants have slipped behind the steadily inflating cost of school uniforms. They have slipped even further behind the demands that schools are increasingly making.

I have been supplied with a great deal of information by the Child Poverty Action Group. In a recent survey it found that authorities such as Liverpool were making a grant of about £10 every two years and that some schools in the area were demanding uniforms costing £50. In the borough of Barnet in the London area the grant varied between £12 for the 11-plus pupil, to about £20 for a pupil of 15. The borough's estimate of the cost of essential school uniform was £25. That covered only one item of each piece of equipment. It is not easy to wash a shirt every night, or every couple of nights, so that the pupil can wear it again the following morning. If we are realistic, the assessment was very much out of keeping with the size of the problem. My own area of Stockport is fairly good about the amount that it will make available. It bases the grant on the school meal means test. It provides for essential items such as a blazer or its equivalent and, if the schools still insist on them, it covers such items as a tie or a cap.

However, there is a clause in the scheme which says that need has to be proven and the authority interprets that by saying that the child must not have any of those items. I have recently come across a problem with parents who have bought those items using money saved perhaps for an electricity bill. The parents have asked the authority for a grant but have been told that a grant could not be made because the items had already been purchased. That seems to be a major anomaly.

Let me list the problems that school uniforms create for low income families, particularly when the parents are determined that their child shall not suffer or be different from other children. Uniform usually means that a child has to have two different types of clothing, one for school and one for the weekends, and that greatly increases clothing costs.

The uniforms are often of poor quality and that often means that the parents are involved in extra expense. I admit that the school cannot win in that respect, for if the clothes are of good quality, that puts up the initial purchase price and if they are of poor quality, there are extra recurring costs.

Another problem is that the expense comes for the low income family in one fell swoop. Some schools estimate about £50 for a whole year's uniform, but parents often have to spend £40 at one go when the child moves into secondary school. Finding £40 at the end of the school holidays in late August or early September is a tremendous burden for low income families.

There is a problem about sports equipment, especially in view of all the other demands that a school may place on a pupil—cookery and craft requirements, for instance. Many parents are being asked an average of £2 a week to send their children to school in what is supposed to be our free system of education.

Another problem for parents is that getting help is not at all easy. The application forms for means tests are extremely complicated and it is often difficult for parents to get hold of them. Stockport, which I represent, defends the complexity of the application form by saying that the education welfare office is expected to help most people to fill in the form. However, parents find it confusing, particularly if they are receiving supplementary benefit they have to decide whether to apply to the supplementary benefit office or the education office for extra help. They are often pushed between the two. I understand that if it is distinctive clothing, school uniform, they should go to the education office and if it is essential clothing, they should go to the Department of Health and Social Security. Parents are often shuttlecocked between the two authorities, getting nothing but confusion.

A great deal of confusion exists because of variations in demands by the schools and the amounts of grant that authorities give, so that people who live relatively close to each other and who have children going to the same school get different grants because they live in different areas.

A growing problem is the way in which the wearing of uniforms is being extended into many junior schools. It particularly alarms me that junior schools are now beginning to adopt uniforms and there is no provision in the local authority scheme for provide a grant in such cases. A low income family may provide a child with a uniform for the junior school with great difficulty only to find that the child moves into the secondary school for which another uniform is expected although the first has not been worn out. I understand from the Child Poverty Action Group that it is a problem not only with secondary schools but with middle and upper schools.

I understand that this is a particular problem in Northumberland where the schools want to indicate separate identities so they have completely different uniforms between the middle and upper schools. This increases the problem of having to pay out the cost without getting good value for it.

Another acute problem is that many local authorities do not actually make cash grants. They give parents a voucher to take to a certain shop and exchange for a particular item. That is all right if the shop has the item in stock, but it presents problems if it has not. If a blazer or a pair of shoes is not in stock the parent cannot go to an alternative supplier because the voucher is usable only at the one shop.

Some schools put a lot of pressure on children to wear uniforms, certainly threatening not to allow them into school, if not actually carrying it out. Some schools do not allow children to take part in sports or games unless that they have the proper sports equipment. It is appalling to see children sitting out watching these activities because they have not got the equipment.

Then there are the difficulties faced by parents who apply for grants at the end of the summer. The education officers take time to process the applications and the clothing is not there for the start of the new term. Then there is the problem of disasters—a blazer gets torn, an essential item is lost. None of the schemes makes provision for help in these cases.

In these difficult circumstances the education welfare officers try very hard, and many schools patch up the situation with charitable activities such as the collection of second-hand clothing, and so on. But it is time the Government did something to improve the situation, particularly in view of the difficulties and disappointments over child benefit.

Of course we cannot expect a lot of money in the present economic situation. However the Department of Education and Science should send out a circular to local authorities recommending one uniform means test—preferably from the school meals test—thus cutting down on the number of forms. The Department should also try to make the grant as generous as possible, and having done that, see that the demands placed on parents by schools for uniforms conform to the amount of the grant available in that local authority. That is the minimum one can expect of the Government.

Also, local authorities should be discouraged from using vouchers which tie parents to a particular shop, and they should clear up for once and for all the anomalies of being shuttled backwards and forwards between the local council Education department, and the Department of Health and Social Security. Junior schools should be discouraged from inflicting the cost of uniforms on parents, and the problem of transfers from middle to upper schools should be sorted out.

We should look at the situation where many schools spend £10 to £15 a year per pupil on books and other equipment, yet at the same time demand that parents pay out that amount for a single blazer. There is still a situation in which too many schools measure achievement by the number of pupils who wear school uniform, rather than by the amount they learn, or the way in which their personalities flower.

11.44 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) for raising this matter. It is one in which I am extremely interested and about which I am very much concerned, although I fear that I shall not be able to be as helpful as both he and I would wish.

The power of local education authorities to help with the cost of school uniforms comes from Section 81(a) of the 1944 Act which, together with the relevant regulations, enables them to pay money to cover such expenses as may be necessary to enable children to take part in school activities. This arrangement has certain advantages. The help given can be completely confidential, outside the school milieu. The majority of authorities take trouble to inform parents of the financial support that is available.

The system is discretionary; therefore it is inherent in the system that some authorities will be more generous than others and that different assistance will be given by different authorities. We are keeping a constant watch on the situation and I assure my hon. Friend that we take a careful note of all the information that we receive. I am grateful for the additional information that he has provided. As the law stands, the Government have no power to intervene in these matters.

Any change to provide a more satisfactory system would require new legislation. There are mixed views about the desirability of school uniforms. The decisions to introduce uniforms and what kind of uniforms are matters for individual schools subject to the advice of the local education authority. But it is within the power of individual schools to decide what uniform they will have, without regard to the grant available. I take the point that this kind of pressure from a school might have bad effects on the cost of uniforms.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity of publicly castigating those individual schools and individual teachers who exclude children from a particular educational activity just because in their opinion they are not suitably clothed. Will she also publicly castigate those teachers who give corporal punishment to children in such circumstances? This is a terrible indictment of the educational system.

Miss Jackson

I had intended to deal with this point later in my speech. There is no question that we in the Department—and, I believe, most, if not all, local authorities—deplore to the utmost any such action by staff or schools. Subject to the reservation that it is sometimes the case that disputes which appear to be about school uniform in fact have nothing to do with it, I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks where action of this kind is taken.

We feel very strongly that decisions about school uniform—the kind of uniform, the cost and whether there is a uniform at all—should be taken on a democratic basis and should command a wide consensus among staff, pupils and parents. We fully endorse the advice, given to members by teachers' organisations, that it is sensible to consult parents and pupils about the uniform, and that the rules should be simple, not too restrictive and not likely to lead to excessive confrontations between pupil and teacher, as was described by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan).

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North referred to areas where the grant was inadequate in view of the cost. It is our experience that, where the grant is patently inadequate, a great deal has been achieved by local pressure. There has been a number of instances in which arrangements which were felt to be unsatisfactory have been reviewed by the authority after a campaign by groups in the area. We think that is probably the best way to approach the question at the moment.

A few cases have come to our notice where unreasonable disciplinary action has been taken against pupils whose parents could not afford to buy the uniform and in circumstances where pupils have been humiliated. Such conduct is quite inexcusable. It is sometimes the case that the uniform is just a manifestation of the trouble and is not the real root of the trouble. Where this is not the case, it is my understanding that all local education authorities take the same view as we take and as my hon. Friend takes in the matter, and would certainly initiate prompt and appropriate action if cases of this kind were brought to their notice.

My hon. Friend asked me to recommend to local authorities the circumstances in which they should make a grant and to suggest that they should iron out some of the more obvious differences between what happens under one authority and another. I will look most carefully at his suggestions. As he knows, this is not the most propitious time even for suggesting to local authorities that they should iron out differences between the provision in one area and another, still less when this would mean increasing expenditure.

However, I am interested and very sympathetic to the problems which arise in this area, and I assure my hon. Friend that, like him, I take a close interest in it and will do anything I can to help in the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Twelve o'clock.