Support offered to families to help with the cost of school uniforms has plummeted, with the vast majority unable to access any help at all, according to new analysis.
Financial aid for uniforms has fallen by more than 70% across England since 2010. More than 80% of cash-strapped local councils now offer no assistance, blaming years of cuts. Data collected through the Freedom of Information Act reveals for the first time that the “school uniform grant”, introduced in 1980, has been dramatically scaled back in England over the past decade. While the Department for Education (DfE) still advertises the grant, it is left to struggling councils to find the resources to pay it out.
Only 27 out of 149 councils surveyed provide the grant at all. A third of those only do so in cases such as fires, floods or “extreme poverty”. Only three councils offer a grant to low-income children in all school years and in all situations.
Many local authorities have cancelled their schemes in recent years, with several blaming government funding cuts. Councils have warned that they will have lost almost 60p in the £1 from central government funding for local services in the decade to 2020. Even among local authorities that do still offer the grants, the data revealed drastic declines in the number issued and amounts provided. Lincolnshire county council issued only three grants last year, for a total of £153.68.
The latest figures were compiled by the Labour MP Lisa Forbes, who has been campaigning on school uniform cost. Among councils that hold data, the number of grants offered has fallen by 71% since 2010, while total spending fell 68%. Several councils said that local charities had stepped in to provide grants, while others had set up “crisis funds” to help families in the most desperate need.
The withdrawal of the once-widespread grant has left whole regions without any council funding for uniforms. No local authorities in the north-east now provide a grant; only one across the whole of the south and east of England and only three in the Midlands offer funding. London and the north-west accounted for the most provision.
The average grant offered was £36 for primary pupils and £63 for secondary schools, compared with an average £300 cost of a uniform in 2018. Just one council, Islington in north London, offered the full £150 promoted by the government.
Due to rising poverty and government austerity, it is estimated that 1.7 million children attend school in badly fitting, unclean or incorrect clothing. Last year, a Children’s Society survey found that one in 10 families reported getting into debt to buy their children school clothes.
Forbes said the figures showed that financial aid for school uniforms had been “abolished by stealth”.
“These cuts hit our youngest and most vulnerable,” she said. “Each day, there are children forced to go to school in clothes that are dirty, badly fitting and unsuitable, while some even report missing lessons as a result.
“These latest figures show that families are being squeezed between rising costs and the lack of support to help with them, and both lie directly at this government’s door. I have urged ministers to keep their promise to regulate uniform costs, but for four years they have dragged their feet. This research should be the final wake-up call they need to act.”
The Competition and Markets Authority, a government watchdog, last month reported a “surge of complaints from parents and carers every summer about the excessive cost of uniforms where school policies prevent items being purchased from cheaper alternative suppliers”.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, recently said that “no uniform should be so expensive as to present a barrier to accessing school”.