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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 29 September 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Covid-19 Vaccination Certification Scheme, Legal Right to Recovery, Points of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Poverty (Purchase of School Uniforms)


Contents


Poverty (Purchase of School Uniforms)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-01095, in the name of Fulton MacGregor, on alleviating poverty associated with the purchase of school uniforms. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises and praises the continuing work of Cool School Uniforms, which is based in Coatbridge, in ensuring that many children across Coatbridge and Chryston are able to obtain warm, clean and comfortable school uniforms; notes that research by Dr Rachel Shanks at the University of Aberdeen has found that almost 20% of secondary schools in Scotland specify an exclusive supplier for their uniform, restricting parents and carers choices; understands that it has been suggested that regular reviews of exclusive supply arrangements of uniform items should take place in order to reduce costs; acknowledges the challenges that parents and carers face in ensuring that their children continue to be clothed appropriately for school, especially as uniforms become more expensive due to what it sees as exclusivity and rising prices and in the face of austerity; believes that the Scottish Government-Green Party cooperation deal has pledged to bring forward statutory guidance for schools to increase the use of generic items of uniform; welcomes this pledge, and notes the view that this and any other steps to alleviate poverty associated with the purchase of school uniforms should be brought forward as soon as practically possible.

17:55  

I am pleased to have secured the debate. I thank the members from all parties who signed my motion and those staying to participate. I also thank those who have helped me to prepare for the debate, particularly Julie O’Byrne, Anne Culley and the rest of the team from cool school uniforms, which is based in my constituency, and Dr Rachel Shanks at the University of Aberdeen. Their knowledge and expertise were indispensable to me in bringing the debate to the table.

I am sure that we can all agree that all children, regardless of background, deserve to be able to attend school in clean, warm and comfortable clothes. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Just as we have food banks across the country, so, too, we have uniform banks, and with the coming Tory cut to universal credit, it is becoming harder and harder for parents and carers who are trying to make ends meet to provide for their families. I was glad that, yesterday, this Parliament voted overwhelmingly for the United Kingdom Government to reverse its draconian decision to cut universal credit. Now the ball is very much in its court.

Of course, the cut to universal credit is only the latest attack on our most vulnerable by a UK Government that Scotland did not vote for. Again, the Scottish Parliament is in the predicament of merely acting as a mitigation chamber. We have already done so much with the bedroom tax; we have also increased the Scottish child payment—and we have done much more besides. Without our having full powers, I know how difficult it is to do even more on issues such as school uniforms. However, we must do more as part of a range of measures to tackle child poverty in this country.

We all know that the uniform can be one of the most significant school costs for parents. The Scottish Government already provides a minimum school clothing grant of £100 for families on low incomes, and it has committed to reviewing the real cost of school uniforms for less well-off families. It has increased the grant to at least £120 for primary school pupils and £150 for secondary school pupils, and it will ensure that the amount increases each year in line with inflation.

I was delighted that the Scottish National Party-Green Party co-operation agreement recognised the issue and has committed to introducing statutory guidance for schools and to encouraging the increased use of generic uniforms. However, I urge the Government to take those actions as soon as possible. The issue affects parents and carers now, and the pandemic has made an already difficult situation even worse. In her closing speech, I ask the minister to indicate the expected timescale for the introduction of the statutory guidance.

This is not a new issue. I have been working with the cool school uniforms group for some years now—indeed, I have been doing so since its formation three or four years ago—discussing the problems parents and carers in my constituency often face in relation to the affordability of school uniforms. As I think that any parent in the chamber will testify to, even taking an MSP’s salary into consideration, school uniforms are very expensive.

I am sure that members are equally aware that many schools now demand specific items, badges, colours and styles for their uniform. The items are not always widely available and some are obtainable only from specific suppliers. School pride and identity are important, and I am not arguing against uniforms in that respect. Indeed, I retain a special pride in each of the schools that I went to, as I am sure is the case for everyone in the chamber in relation to their schools. I will take the opportunity to give my schools a wee shout out: Coatdyke primary school, which is now closed; Rochsolloch primary school, where I went after Coatdyke; and Coatbridge high school.

A person’s school often has a special place in their heart, and much of that is driven by the identity of the school community. I do not think that we should remove that identity, but we need to have more standardised uniforms, to make sure that nobody is left behind and that we begin to break the stigma around uniforms.

Currently, uniform suppliers can set whatever price they please. With so many having a monopoly of supply over uniforms, parents and carers are left in the unenviable position of having either to fork out for an expensive uniform or to send their child to school in a more affordable but generic uniform that makes them more likely to feel out of place among their peers.

Members might be aware that a law was passed in England in April requiring schools to follow new statutory guidance on uniform costs. I congratulate Labour MP Mike Amesbury on introducing that as a private member’s bill. I understand that, later this year, the UK Department for Education will publish statutory guidance instructing England’s schools to keep prices down, consider high street alternatives and encourage the use of second-hand uniforms. That is fantastic. I hope that the department implements that with haste and—this will be important—with appropriate safeguards to ensure quality.

Ahead of the debate, I spoke with Julie O’Byrne, whom I have already mentioned. She is the chair and founder of cool school uniforms and, for members’ information, she is also my local hero for the opening of Parliament on Saturday.

To explain to people who are not familiar with a uniform bank, cool school uniforms accepts donations of uniform that is in good condition and redistributes it to pupils who require it. Families can be referred through schools, social work departments or any respected caring group or individual. Families can also self-refer, and they will be assisted after benefit checks. Cool school uniforms also helps with physical education kits and stationery, and ensures that children can go to school ready to learn. The group’s work is absolutely invaluable and a lifeline to many, but I wish that places such as uniform banks and food banks did not have to exist.

Julie said that she would unquestionably support generic uniforms and has spoken to me about how that approach has been successful elsewhere—in Wales, for example. She detailed how some schools request colours for their blazers or shirts that are so specific—for example, a lilac shirt—that there is no choice as they cannot be bought from supermarkets, which are the affordable option for many parents and carers.

White shirts from a supermarket can cost as little as £3 for a pack of two, whereas lilac shirts from a uniform supplier cost £16 for a pack of two. That is a huge difference for someone who is on the breadline, and there is not much change left from the £100 grant once the basics have been purchased. The total back-to-school bill can add up to several hundred pounds for parents with more than one child, and that is why I believe that the current grant is not working as well as it should or could be.

The 26th UN climate change conference of the parties—COP26—is fast approaching, of course, and there is a climate issue here, too. Clothing is a huge contributor to global carbon emissions. That does not mean that we should stop buying uniforms, but if we can get more than a year’s use out of something, we absolutely should. I know from my own kids that they grow fast. We always hope to get their clothes to last as long as possible, but unavoidable growth spurts mean that their clothes are often still new when they no longer fit. It is important that there are options to reuse such items.

Dr Rachel Shanks at the University of Aberdeen has undertaken a phenomenal amount of research on the issue. I spoke to her ahead of lodging my motion and I will highlight the three broad recommendations that are coming out of her research. First, we should implement statutory guidance on school uniform policies with affordability as the top priority. Secondly, the statutory guidance should require regular reviews to be undertaken of exclusive supply arrangements for school uniform items in order to reduce the cost of the school uniform. Thirdly, school uniform, dress code and appearance policies should involve pupils in decision making in both their creation and regular reviews.

Those three recommendations are fair and proportionate, and I ask the Government to comment on them and provide a view on whether further legislation, such as through a member’s bill, could be helpful and useful.

Every child deserves to be able to attend school with clean and warm clothes that do not single them out from their peers. In a time of great austerity imposed by the Tory Government, it is becoming more and more difficult for parents and carers to ensure that they have the cash to make sure that young people are kitted out for school, even with uniform grants in place. Action on school uniforms can be only part of a suite of measures to alleviate child poverty, including free school meals for larger cohorts and the uplifting of the Scottish child payment, but I hope that we can move forward swiftly with a policy that will help to mitigate uniform poverty and ensure that our children arrive at school equipped to learn.

18:03  

I start by thanking Fulton MacGregor for bringing the important topic of school uniforms to the chamber. Cool school uniforms, which is based in Coatbridge, is one of many organisations that go above and beyond to help families obtain warm, clean and comfortable school uniforms.

Mr MacGregor spoke highly of the work that the group does. I share his admiration for the group’s dedication to helping families who may struggle to afford uniforms for their children. There is more that we in the Parliament can do to support such organisations and make uniforms more easily available to all families, so that no young person feels awkward or segregated from their peers. I intend to explore some proposals during my speech.

At present, a large majority of Scottish publicly funded schools require pupils to wear a uniform, which can put financial strain on families each school term. In 2020, the Children’s Society found that families across the UK pay on average £337 per year for school uniforms for each secondary school child. The same study found that those costs were more than three times what parents think is a reasonable cost for secondary school uniforms.

Support is in place for some families, who are entitled to a uniform grant. Although it is welcome that the Scottish Government has increased the grant for primary and secondary school pupils, it was forced into that decision. Eligible primary school pupils will receive a minimum of £120 and eligible secondary school pupils will receive a minimum of £150. The grant is in line with the views of parents and families, who should not have to pay through the nose to ensure that their children have the appropriate school uniform.

It is relevant to recognise the importance of a school uniform. It removes the stigma that is caused when some families are unable to afford the latest designer clothes. A uniform is visible and should give pupils a sense of pride in their school.

However, one fifth of secondary schools specify an exclusive supplier for their uniforms. It is understandable that, as the end of the school holidays draws near, families have to make tough decisions because they cannot choose a supplier within their budget. Although the SNP-Green coalition has said that it intends to crack down on schools using exclusive uniform suppliers, that promise has not yet been fulfilled. Both parties included the idea in their manifestos, but we need action now. As the motion says,

“steps to alleviate poverty associated with the purchase of school uniforms should be brought forward as soon as practically possible.”

The Scottish Government must also implement the £20 increase to the Scottish child payment without delay.

Until those actions are taken, organisations such as cool school uniforms will experience increasing demand from families who need donated clothing. I will continue seeking confirmation from the Scottish Government that clothing grants will not be delayed, as they were last year. That delay caused upset and panic to parents who were entitled to the grant but did not know if they would receive that financial support in time. It is imperative that councils receive that funding so that they can administer it to families in time, before the school term begins, and so that families and children can be organised and ready for the return to school.

Mr MacGregor made an interesting point about the reuse of clothing. I share his interest in sustainable clothing, which could involve our young people in the fight to tackle climate change.

The Scottish Government must set out its plans to stop schools using named school uniform suppliers, and it must review the school uniform grant, which Scottish Conservatives support. We must also ensure that grants are provided to families at the appropriate time, to reduce the pressures on the organisations that go above and beyond to support their communities. I thank Mr MacGregor for bringing the issue to the chamber and I look forward to hearing the other speeches.

18:07  

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and congratulate Fulton MacGregor on securing it. I congratulate cool school uniforms for ensuring that children and young people in Coatbridge can obtain clean and comfortable school uniforms. I welcome the commitment in the Scottish Government-Green party agreement to introduce statutory guidance for schools to increase the use of generic items of school uniform. I agree that the use of exclusive supplier arrangements between schools and businesses can be extremely expensive—the cost is prohibitive for many families.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a direct and negative impact on family budgets across Scotland, including in my South Scotland region, while costs have increased significantly. Too often, school uniforms are an additional expense that families on low incomes struggle to meet.

During the pandemic, the London School of Economics carried out research into the effect of the cost of school uniforms on low-income families across the four UK nations. Case studies in the report showed that families in all parts of the UK were being driven to choose between heating or eating and that they also had to make such choices about school uniforms. The report also found that the root cause of those inequalities was the UK Government’s welfare system.

There are regional variations in support in England. I welcome the steps that the Scottish Government is taking, such as the school clothing grant of £120 for primary school pupils and £150 for secondary school pupils. Those grants are a lifeline for many families.

One participant in the LSE study, Tahlia from the Scottish Borders, articulated the challenges being faced by families as regards uniforms. Tahlia once relied on charity shops and pre-loved clothing from friends and people in the community for school uniforms. The inaccessibility of those sources during lockdown triggered a spiral of bills, debt and hunger.

Tahlia said:

“Because of covid … I’ve not received any hand me down clothes for my sons this whole year … In September had to buy 3 children all brand new uniform … I’m £2000 in debt, I ran out of money a week last Thursday … I’ve only eaten a diet based on bread and potatoes this last month as I wanted to ensure my kids had food.”

She said that just as the UK Government is proposing to take away the £20 per week universal credit uplift from the most vulnerable families in the UK. It is completely unacceptable. Once again, I call on the UK Government to reverse that callous, cruel cut.

I want to highlight some of the important work that is being carried out by dedicated people across Dumfries and Galloway to ensure that young people have access to school uniforms, such as the Dumfries uniform bank, run by Dr Amy Vetters, which I visited in 2018. The uniform bank has been operational since 2017, and is available to any family in Dumfries and the surrounding area who are struggling with the costs of school uniforms. The uniform bank has collection points at various supermarkets, where those who are able to do so can donate items of uniform. The uniform bank has helped more than 380 families so far with uniform costs. I thank Amy and the volunteers for their work.

Another organisation that works across Dumfries and Galloway is Aberlour. I visited the Aberlour Dumfries north-west resource centre campus on Monday and met Amanda McAllister, the manager. Aberlour has a range of support options available to families for school uniforms and its recent one shirt one month challenge to help with the cost of school uniforms for local families has had great support.

I welcome the debate and I support the measures that the Scottish Government has put in place to assist families with the cost of school uniforms. Again, I call on the UK Government to reverse the callous and cruel cut to the £20 per week uplift to universal credit.

18:12  

Scotland in 2021 should not require many of the services that Fulton MacGregor mentioned in his motion and in his speech. Decisions by the Scottish Government and the Conservative Government in Westminster have made it harder for people to get by and have ensured that fewer families are in stable well-paid employment. That means that more children live and grow up in poverty. The poverty that is associated with purchase of school uniforms is a direct impact of political decision-making. Families are being let down, so we must act with purpose to deliver the real radical change that is required to improve livelihoods and life chances.

The motion suggests that we should welcome the SNP-Green Party coalition pledge to introduce statutory guidance for schools to increase use of generic items of uniforms in order to reduce costs. I support any progressive steps to make buying school uniforms easier and less expensive for low-income families. I know the pressure that is felt by some parents to buy for their children items such as new school uniforms, when it is not really an expense that they can afford.

In 14 years of government, the SNP Government has taken the Tory cuts, multiplied them and passed them on to local communities, so I hope that I can be forgiven for being sceptical about the likelihood of the SNP-Green coalition taking the necessary steps to support our lowest-income families and communities. I hope that tonight’s debate will prove me wrong. I hope that the members who have spoken here will stand up and be counted on the issue.

In response to the need that has been created by political decision making, it has been encouraging to see so many groups and individuals in our communities doing all that they can to help parents to provide uniforms for children, whether that be in the form of donating directly to families or setting up uniform banks where uniforms can be handed in and collected by families. Communities are pulling together to help to alleviate the pressure that is put on their neighbours by poverty that is associated with purchase of school uniform and other items. That has been truly positive and has continued throughout the pandemic.

South Ayrshire School Clothing Bank in my area is a fine example of such work. It is run fully by volunteers, with a mission to ensure that every child is able to go to school in clothing that is just like that of their peers’, which the clothing bank believes can help their ability to learn, socialise and develop key interpersonal skills. However, I stress again that it is shameful that it has come to that. Although community intervention is welcome and the work of volunteers is admirable, the correct policies would have to be put in place to ensure that it is not needed.

With regard to local government, this year, despite more than a decade of cuts to its budget, Labour-run North Lanarkshire Council became the first council in the United Kingdom to introduce a clothing and footwear grant for nursery children. That is an example of a council doing what it can to give children the best start in life. It is clear to me that if such action was to be replicated across Scotland, our young people would start off with the best of benefits.

It is devastating that poverty that is associated with purchase of school uniforms exists in Scotland, and I agree with Fulton MacGregor that schools can and should do more to make generic and less expensive uniform items more accessible to parents of the children who attend. Having an exclusive supplier of expensive uniforms might work for a school, but it does not necessarily work for the low-income families whom it serves. I would welcome regular reviews of such arrangements.

The issue that we are debating today has much deeper causes—namely, fundamentally flawed policies that have failed the people who are most in need. To alleviate poverty that is caused by a host of factors, we must be more radical in our politics and stand up for those who have been let down by austerity and cuts. Only by doing that will we deliver the change that we truly need.

18:16  

I am grateful to Fulton MacGregor for lodging the motion and enabling discussion of such an important issue in the Scottish Parliament.

I recognise and thank cool school uniforms for its work in supporting children, young people and their families to access school uniform items, which enables pupils to achieve their potential. I also thank all those who work and volunteer in clothing banks across Scotland for their commitment to and support for families. I absolutely recognise the issues and concerns that have been raised in this evening’s debate.

Our programme for government sets out the actions that we will take in our efforts to end child poverty. Subject to the necessary data being made available from the Department for Work and Pensions, by the end of next year the Scottish child payment, which already benefits eligible families with children up to the age of 6, will be extended to include children up to the age of 16.

However, we are already supporting as many children as possible through our bridging payments. Through that benefit, which is unique in the United Kingdom and is designed to tackle poverty head on, we are now reaching 108,000 children. We are committed to increasing the child payment from £10 to £20 per child per week as soon as possible, and we will consider that through the budget bill process.

As part of the strategic approach, we will also reduce the cost of the school day. We will build a system to ensure equal access to the full package of education by breaking down financial barriers in order to make a real difference in the lives of children from low-income families.

We have already abolished music tuition charges and we have extended provision of free school meals to children in primary 4. Over the course of this parliamentary session, we will extend free school meals to all primary school pupils all year round. In addition to the expansion of provision of free school lunches, we have committed to universal free breakfast provision for all primary school pupils during term time and in the holidays. That will ensure that all primary school pupils can benefit from a nutritious breakfast at the start of the day, every day.

We will also provide every child with an electronic device and a connection to get online, because we recognise that they are as essential to education today as jotters and pencils were in years gone by.

In a moment, I will speak about school uniforms in particular, but before I do so, I acknowledge the work of the Child Poverty Action Group. Recently, the group published an updated toolkit for schools to support them in considering the cost of the school day for families. The toolkit provides a range of resources to support schools, local authorities and their partners to identify and address financial barriers to participation and learning. At the heart of the resource is the involvement of children, parents and staff in identifying which school items result in additional financial burden for families, and risk children and young people experiencing stigma or feeling excluded.

I turn to the issue of school uniforms. We know that uniforms can be one of the most significant school costs for families. I confirm that we are firmly committed to overcoming barriers to accessing education, including those relating to school uniforms.

In partnership with local authorities, we have delivered on our commitment to increase the level of the school clothing grant to at least £120 for primary school pupils and £150 for secondary school pupils. That vital support was in place in time for the start of the new school year in August.

As has been recognised by Fulton MacGregor, during this parliamentary term we will introduce statutory guidance for schools, which will lead to an increase in use of generic items of uniform and a reduction in costs for families. The member asked what the timescale is for the measures. We will engage with stakeholders as soon as possible as part of preparing the guidance.

I thank the minister for answering my question about the statutory guidance and for highlighting that she will be talking to stakeholders. Can she also comment on my question about how the guidance might be progressed? Would a member’s bill on the topic be helpful?

At the moment, we are looking to provide guidance, but I am certainly happy to explore the idea of a member’s bill with Mr MacGregor.

The steps that we are taking are important. We must do all that we can to ensure that families can afford school uniforms. We know that some families are sacrificing essentials including heating, food and rent payments so that their children can participate fully at school. That cannot be right.

As Emma Harper mentioned, yesterday Parliament voted overwhelmingly to support cancelling the planned £20 a week cut to universal credit next month. The cut will plunge 60,000 families, including 20,000 children into poverty. I find it quite rich that a Tory MSP has asked us to introduce a £20 a week Scottish child payment without delay. I note that no Tory members are sitting here—they have left the debate.

Minister, I say just for the record that Meghan Gallacher, who contributed to the debate, is still here.

Yes—she is here virtually, but the two members who were in the chamber have left.

I am pleased that the commitment to introduce statutory guidance on school uniforms is part of the Scottish Government’s and Scottish Green Party’s shared policy programme. I welcome the opportunity to work with colleagues to deliver that commitment, and to ensure that all our children and young people can go to school free from stigma, that they are included, engaged and involved in their learning, and that they are supported to reach their full potential.

Meeting closed at 18:22.