With the end of the summer holidays fast approaching, parents across the country face having to fork out hundreds of pounds to kit out and equip their children for the start of the new school year. For families on low incomes the annual back-to-school shop is a major financial burden. Never mind the latest trainers or clothing fashions - even providing for the basic every day costs of attending school are stretching the budgets of poorer parents.
Family Action's new report, The Big Stitch-Up, finds that the average annual back-to-school cost of the schools surveyed, including uniforms, coats, bags and stationery - is now £156 for a child at primary school and £285 for a child at secondary school. That means families on the poverty line are expected to spend up to two fifths of their August income to satisfy schools' often onerous demands.
Our report highlights numerous examples of expensive items that some schools require parents to buy for their children. Compulsory items include coats costing £98 each, £89 blazers, £38 rugby shirts and £27 jumpers. Some schools expect parents to fork out up to £600 per child in total.
Other compulsory items that some schools require - many of which can only be bought at expensive specialist shops - include jogging bottoms with the child's initials printed on them, aprons for cookery classes, and even straw boaters. Some schools expect pupils to have a summer uniform as well as a standard one, while others demand a range of branded sports wear. Parents of larger children often have to pay nearly twice as much for larger size uniforms than they would for smaller sizes.
Other costs that schools expect parents to meet are for textbooks, workbooks, art and craft materials, school trips and outings, and even - as reported earlier this summer - iPads.
The Big Stitch-Up also finds that the significant rise in academy schools maybe increasing the back-to-school burden on families. When schools become academies, they frequently rebrand themselves and may require students to purchase new uniforms.
The situation is worsened by the fact that there is no comprehensive system of support in place to help low-income parents who cannot afford to buy their children's school uniform. Some local authorities still offer grants or vouchers but others have scrapped their support schemes.
While excessive back-to-school costs represent a particular challenge for low income parents, many families on middle incomes will also struggle to meet these costs. It is clear that schools need to do more to consider the impact of their school uniform policies on all families who are feeling the squeeze each year.
Family Action is calling on schools to stop the sale of branded items from special shops, with the exception of school ties. We think that schools should only require parents to buy plain, standard clothing from any retailer of their choice, and add a badge later. This would dramatically cut the cost of school uniforms and would reduce the financial burden on parents, while ensuring that pupils are still dressed smartly and that the school they attend is still identifiable.
School uniform is not a bad idea in principle - many head teachers and parents are persuaded of its merits in supporting identity, discipline and good behaviour. However, the impacts of back-to-school costs on family budgets are often significant and unwelcome, and action is required to ensure these costs are constrained as far as possible.