Cheaper school uniforms hope

STEVE DOWNES Thousands of East Anglian parents could cash in on cheaper school uniforms because of a government squeeze on exclusive deals with suppliers.

STEVE DOWNES

Thousands of East Anglian parents could cash in on cheaper school uniforms because of a government squeeze on exclusive deals with suppliers.

Ministers are finalising a get-tough policy that will threaten schools with prosecution by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) if they have a tie-up with one outfitter.

At the moment, many of the region's schools have one uniform supplier - often because intricate features like badges and embroidery cannot be bought off the shelf.

The government crack-down could force some schools to redesign their uniforms to make them easier to produce and cheaper to buy.

Generic items like trousers and white shirts can be bought anywhere, including from supermarkets that are engaged in a price war that has reduced school shirts and trousers to as little as £2.

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Janet Mark, headmistress at Hethersett Old Hall School, admitted she was concerned by the potential change to the law. She said: "We have to abide by the law, so I will have to look into what the position is."

The school has one uniform producer, Grahame Gardner in Leicester, which visits the school at least twice a term. Parents pick from a list and buy mail order - but have no choice of supplier.

Mrs Mark said the system "inevitably" made it more expensive, but added that it would be difficult to find another supplier to agree also to make the same uniform.

Jim Hawkins, headmaster of Norwich School, said: "Some items, such as trousers and shirts, can be bought anywhere. More specific items, such as blazers, are quite distinctive. They can be bought new from one supplier or from the second-hand shop which is run by our parent-teacher association.

"It's quite a tricky issue. It's about getting the best price and the best quality."

Mr Hawkins and Mrs Mark agreed that having a uniform, however expensive, worked out cheaper for parents than having no uniform - which led to big bills for designer clothing as students sought to keep up with each other.

Cromer High School, which recently ditched its blazer and tie, sells its uniform direct to students but makes no profit. It has an exclusive tie-up with one manufact-urer for embroidered fleeces and polo shirts.

While the products are much cheaper than uniforms with a blazer and tie, the school is among many that could face OFT scrutiny.

The potential cost of uniform is highlighted by St Felix School in Southwold, where the cost of fully clothing one student is £300.

The school has its own shop on site, and puts profits into funding extra-curricular activities and school minibuses.

Headteacher David Ward said: "It is a great way of marketing the school. We believe it is important for children to take a pride in the uniform and the school emblem."

John Lewis in Norwich supplies uniforms for 15 Norfolk schools, including Norwich School and Norwich High School for Girls, where a full uniform - including blazer, skirt, blouse, jumper, dress, coat, lab coat, polo shirt, games skirt, briefs, cycling shorts and swimming costume - costs £348.

It also supplies Hellesdon High, where for £80 you get a blazer, badge, tie, shirt, trousers, jumper, apron, PE shorts, socks, tracksuit and t-shirt.

By contrast, parents shopping at QD in Norwich can get white polo shirts for £1, sweatshirts for £1.50, and trousers for £2.

The crackdown, announced by children's minister Kevin Brennan, follows an OFT inquiry which found parents paid £45m a year extra because schools stipulated certain suppliers.

Mr Brennan said: "Expens-ive uniforms can put low-income families off applying to certain schools. Wealth should never be a deterrent to opportunity and we are very clear that schools should limit cost.

"I am all for schools making their uniforms distinctive through person-alised items such as badges, ties and blazers but these should not be costly."

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