OFT wades into the 'school uniform tax' debate
After sausage rolls, rotisserie chicken and Grannies comes the new, catchy, School Uniform Tax. Well, sort of. Of course there is no actual tax on school uniforms* but the OFT have decided to wade into a rumbling debate over the cost of school uniform, with some parents paying £5-10 more for items of school uniform clothing than they should.
This, of course, is not a tax, but profiteering by school uniform manufacturers who are named ‘preferred’ (i.e. only) suppliers of uniform for around 30,000 state primary and secondary schools. The parents are over a barrel, the uniform supplier makes a packet, possibly reduced only by a small donation into school funds.
But why is it being called a tax and what have the OFT got to do with it? Well, some time ago the Labour government introduced guidelines that said State schools should not require pupils to buy uniform from any given supplier, but that pupils should be allowed to wear supermarket uniforms (in the appropriate colours of course). However, the current coalition Government abolished these guidelines, thereby allowing certain schools to reintroduce exclusive uniform deals, and premium prices. The OFT are getting involved because they say schools are not ‘shopping around’ to find the best supplier for their exclusive uniform. And by requiring schools to do this, the prices should come down.
Susan Oxley, assistant director in the OFT's goods and consumer group, said: “When schools require that uniforms are bought from a preferred supplier or shop it can act as a 'tax' on families, which mostly goes to the chosen retailers. We know schools don't want families to be left out of pocket and we have written to schools across the UK asking them to review their policies and supplier arrangements.”
The OFT surveyed schools across the UK and found that schools claimed to use a single supplier because they demanded “consistent, good quality uniforms”. It was also believed that specifying a retailer was more convenient for parents. A massive 74% of schools placed “restrictions on where uniforms can be bought”, an unsurprising increase from 2006 figures.
But supporting the OFTs assertion, fewer than 40% schools who specified a named supplier used a proper selection process when appointing the retailer, making it likely this was not the cheapest option for parents and pupils.
A Department for Education spokeswoman told the Telegraph: “It is down to schools to set a uniform policy that is right for parents and pupils. Schools must ensure that uniforms are affordable for all.” No passing of the buck there then.
*not even VAT, being zero-rated children’s clothes.