HL Deb 25 October 2004 vol 665 cc1055-7

Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the current provision by local education authorities of help for low-income households towards the cost of school uniforms is satisfactory.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, local education authorities have discretionary power to pay clothing grants to help parents who find it difficult to buy school uniform for their children. The decision on whether to pay the grant is up to each LEA as they are best placed to determine local need.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Is he aware that the average cost of kitting out a pupil for a secondary school, including PE kit, is now about £200? As he said, there is no statutory duty on local authorities to provide grants towards meeting that cost. Given that in their new five-year strategy for education the Government have encouraged schools to adopt a school uniform to help to give pupils pride in their schools, will he give an assurance that the Government will make it a statutory duty on local authorities to provide grants towards the cost of school uniform and back that up with earmarked funding from the standard spending assessment?

Lord Filkin

Yes, my Lords, I am broadly aware of the cost of school uniform. Children are a joy but they are not a free good, as most of us know. The legislation clearly states "may" rather than "must" and we think that strikes the right balance. It is correct that the five-year strategy urges schools to have a school uniform policy for the reasons indicated by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. Some 90 per cent already have such a policy, so perhaps they do not need too much urging. The fundamental answer to the question is that there is a proper balance to strike between what is right at the national level and what is right at a local level. Central government focus on trying to remove child poverty through the income and tax benefit system and, if we believe in local government, the detail—important though it is—is best dealt with by local government.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, does the Minister agree that school uniforms are socially levelling and, therefore, presumably high on the Government's priority list for an inclusive society? If he does agree, surely there are some additional measures that the Government can introduce to combat the existing postcode lottery in this area.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, from my very distant recollection, school uniforms can have some socially levelling function, although I do not believe that that is the central reason for them. The answer is, as I have already stated, that we have given clear guidance to LEAs about the importance of considering affordable school uniform policies. Sensible school governors can do an enormous amount in that respect to ensure that designer clothes items are not specified. However, I do not believe that this would be at the top of my list for fresh intervention by the heavy hand of the central state.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, the number of LEAs offering clothing grants has dropped from 70 per cent in 2001 to just 58 per cent this year. What assessment have Her Majesty's Government made of the disparity in the range of grants provided by different LEAs? Can the Minister inform the House of the results of his research into the cost of school uniforms and the financial impact on low-income families?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, we will publish the results of the survey into the costs, as suggested by the noble Baroness. With any luck that will be later in November. The central point is the one to which I have already alluded: as a result of the wider changes that we have made to the taxation and benefit system, compared with the situation in 1997, a family with a single wage earner and two children is £3,700 better off than it was. The poorest families with children are £3,000 better off. I am not minimising the pain of school uniform costs to poor families, but LEAs and governors can do much to keep them reasonable in the ways in which I have indicated. We believe that central government should focus on the broad picture: we believe that we are making quite remarkable progress on reducing child poverty.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, £200 is a lot of money. Do schools make any effort to buy in bulk to reduce that cost?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I do not think that I shall go into advising schools to set up buying agencies, although some may do so. The advice we would give, and have given to school governors, is that, if one is trying to specify school uniforms, ensure that one specifies products for which there is competition in the market. If one specifies a purple blazer with yellow trimmings, there will probably be only a single supplier and we know what happens in such circumstances.

Baroness David

My Lords, does the Minister include in his survey the wishes of children themselves? Have local or national government made any effort to find out the attitude of children? Do children have to wear the absolutely correct uniform or can they wear an approximation to it?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, certainly the guidance that we issued two years ago made it absolutely clear that in forming a policy for school uniform, governors had to consult and listen to parents, including poor parents, and that they had to treat the needs and problems of poor parents particularly seriously. I do not know whether they are also obliged to consult children, although that would certainly co-ordinate with the thrust of government policy that every child matters. From the Dispatch Box I shall add that to the list: yes, they should consult children as well. Of course, as one would expect, children have strong views on such matters. In summary, a good LEA will consult parents and children and will have affordable policies, and therefore will try to minimise the pain for poorer families.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, surely the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, made an extremely practical suggestion. Bulk buying through various firms, shops and so on to get a good deal is a very good answer for schools. Does the Minister not appreciate that if the Government would stop constantly interfering with what schools are doing and telling them from the centre what they have got to do and leave it to schools and local authorities to get on with it, they would find the best way to provide children with uniforms? This interchange is a very good example of what is wrong with the Government's whole approach.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, despite the form of it, I think the noble Baroness has already made my point. I have half the House telling me to interfere more and the other half telling me to interfere less. On this issue we are quite clear. We are not going to interfere more in this respect. If schools want to bulk buy, jolly good for them—go to it and do it. It does not need the central state to tell them to do so.

The noble Baroness's other point was that we are over-interfering with schools. That is not so. We are going to give them three-year budgets, we are going to stand back from a whole host of single funding sources and we are going to reduce the amount of regulatory burdens on schools. I think that schools will rejoice about the additional freedoms that they will be given by this Government.

Back to