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SCHOOL UNIFORMS WORRY FOR POOR PARENTS

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Inability to buy a school uniform for their children is becoming a major worry for an increasing number of parents,...
Inability to buy a school uniform for their children is becoming a major worry for an increasing number of parents, evidence from the Family Welfare Association has found. The charity is calling on the government to make it a duty for Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to provide school uniform grants and to provide guidance to school governors on limiting their demands.

At present LEAs are empowered by government to make grants, but 29% choose not to do so, and a further 6% provide grants to a handful of families in very exceptional circumstances only. Even the 39% of authorities which make grants available to children of all ages rarely meet even half of the actual cost of a school uniform. For those families who cannot meet the cost, the only alternative source of funding is charity.

Many poor parents have just£3 per family member per day to spend on food, clothing and leisure and learning activities, FWA has found, yet the average cost of a basic primary school uniform including obligatory sports clothing, is£92 for boys (£32. for sports clothing) and£114.50 for girls (£33.50 for sports clothing); for a secondary school uniform the cost will be an average£156.50 for boys (£61. for sports clothing) and£157. for girls (£53. for sports clothing).

FWA makes financial grants for families with children to fund essential items, and over the past year the disbursal of 5,000 grants totalling over£1m has made them one of the UK's major grant makers for individuals. All families receiving grants from FWA have been turned down for help by statutory agencies.

FWA's chief executive, Helen Dent, said today: 'In recent years FWA has seen an alarming increase in the number of applications for financial help to fund school uniforms. As a result of their parent's inability to afford a uniform, children are sometimes precluded from attending the school of their choice, and where they are still able to attend but without the full school uniform, their lives can be made a misery by teasing and bullying from both teachers and pupils.

FWA's evidence shows:

- It is school governors who decide whether school uniforms are necessary for their school and the items to be included.

- Some schools opt for a low cost uniform obtainable from a chain store with an added sew-on badge to provide the school insignia, others require uniforms bought from a special shop, and in the worse case found, one school required a different uniform for each year of the school.

- The government empowers local education authorities (LEAs) to fund uniforms for children living in families on low incomes, yet 29% make no financial assistance available. Of those who do provide some sort of grant, FWA found it to be lower than the actual cost of the uniform in every case investigated - even for low-cost chain store uniforms.

- The Social Fund specifically excludes meeting the cost of school uniforms, the Benefits Agency advising that it is the LEA's responsibility to provide funding.

- The Children Act empowers local authorities to make financial payment to children in need, but in FWA's experience, local authorities preclude payment for school uniforms, seeing it as the responsibility of the LEA.

- Charities are often a family's only hope for a uniform, but charities cannot meet the demand.

- Despite government recommendations to the contrary, some schools exclude children who do not have a uniform.

- Where schools will accept children without the uniform, children are bullied and stigmatised as poor - by both fellow pupils and teachers.

- Since children are continually growing out of clothing, school uniform costs are repetitive which creates a continual problem because even LEAs providing grants rarely make allowances for this, and the search for a grant from a charity has to begin again.

- The size of the child can make a huge difference to the cost and can preclude parents of larger children from purchasing cheaper uniforms in chain stores.

- Where you live matters; children living in London or the South West are more likely to receive a grant than those living in the Midlands or North East.

'FWA does not believe that school uniforms should be abolished,' Helen Dent said. 'The arguments in favour of them are well respected by the government, schools and parents alike. However, paying for a school uniform makes an impact on all household budgets, and for families on low incomes the cost is prohibitive, creating further hardship, embarrassment and exclusion.

'The government should make it a duty for LEAs to provide adequate school uniform grants, recognising that children grow and that wear and tear make additional demands on parents. School governors must recognise their responsibilities by choosing a uniform that is simple, cheap, readily available and easy to launder (ie, no dry cleaning bills) and keep items with specific insignia to a minimum.'

FWA is a founder member of the End Child Poverty Coalition.

'Grants for School Uniforms: evidence from the Family Welfare Association' is obtainable from FWA, 501-505 Kingsland Road, London, E8 4AU. Tel: 020 7254 6251.

CASE STUDIES - GRANTS FOR SCHOOL UNIFORMS

The following are taken from applications for grants for school uniforms made to

FWA during a two-week period last year.

No grant available from the Benefits Agency

Lucy and her younger brother went to live with their grandmother as their natural mother was abusing drugs and was no longer capable of caring for them. Unable to do more than feed and house the children on the benefits she received, she got into debt in order to provide them with the furniture and clothes they needed when they arrived. There was no money for school uniforms required for their new schools. Her application to the Benefits Agency for a Social Fund loan was refused as they do not fund school uniforms. The Benefits Agency advised her to apply to FWA.

Refusalof grant under Section 17 of the Children Act

Charmaine is 11 and is transferring to a secondary school in September. Her mother has a physical disability and long periods of depression which affect her ability to parent. Charmaine's father is in prison. Charmaine was bullied in her primary school because she appeared so poor, and in the neighbourhood because of her family circumstances. Charmaine's social worker describes her as a bright and lively girl despite her treatment at school and her family circumstances. The social worker believed that Charmaine needed a fresh start with a proper school uniform so that she looked like other pupils in her secondary school and that this would help her to make friends and put a stop to the bullying. School uniforms are precluded from the criteria for a Section 17 grant, despite the exceptional circumstances.

Paying for a school uniform on low wages

Mrs J was divorced from her husband with whom she had two children aged 10 and 11. She died in August, and the children's father, now remarried with a child of that marriage, is providing care for a new wife and the three children. He works part-time and receives in-work benefits. As he had just been reassessed for Working Families Tax Credit, he will not be reassessed for a further six months, despite the change in his circumstances. The children from his first marriage need to change schools and need school uniforms. However, as he is in work he is not eligible for a uniform grant, free school meals or a Social Fund grant. He is worse off in work than on benefits.

Ineligible for a Social Fund loan

Mr and Mrs M has four children aged 5-10. She was diagnosed with cancer in July, and her husband gave up work to care for her and look after the children in the holidays. The youngest child is about to start school for which she requires a uniform, and the other children are growing and need replacement items. As he has just given up work he is not entitled to any Social Fund grant or loan.

Mr and Mrs J bought their council house under the right-to-buy scheme. Mr J worked as a milkman, Mrs J was a care assistant in a home for elderly people. Six months ago Mrs J had an accident which left her severely brain damaged, and she is still in hospital about 15 miles from where they live. Mr J had to give up work to look after his small children and to visit his wife in hospital. They are being threatened with eviction for non-payment of their mortgage, Mr J is spending£30 each week on travel to see his wife, and they simply do not have enough money for even basic food. Now all the children need items of school uniform, and he has no money to purchase them. He is not eligible for a Social Fund grant, even for winter coats and shoes, as he has not been unemployed for 26 weeks.

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