My early years were chaotic with many periods of emergency residential placements before I was fostered by a loving family. I grew up without the sense of identity experienced by many of my peers, and education was often a struggle, it was difficult to fit in and I was regularly seen as “the kid that was in care”. I’ve seen first-hand the struggles that many of the children in the UK are going through today, and as I got older I always knew that I wanted to do something to help children that were in a similar position to where I had been. In my teens I was fortunate enough to be adopted by the same family who had fostered me and who continued to show me how much better life could be. I believe from my own early experiences, that disadvantaged children often suffer with little opportunities, especially in education, and I wanted to change that.
I began my career as a residential social worker, working directly with disaffected young people, initially I worked closely with those that suffered with disabilities, and as I worked my way up to the residential home manager, I supported various legislations that would aim to protect these children. In my personal life, I was just about to get heavily involved in the family business – a school wear supplier in Margate, now as a director of the business, I knew that I could use my position to help the local community, and its children in education.
My father had owned the business for six years, and through it, he helped instil a sense of pride that a school uniform can bring to a child – we fought to raise uniform standards and accessibility for families from every background. I was confident that the business could be an important part of the community, helping and supporting parents and children alike.
As I grew within the business, more and more young people would visit the store each year that were clearly impacted by social media, struggling with body image, gender, poverty and broken homes – designing uniforms for them provided a focus, it enabled them to feel pride in themselves and provided something to be proud of. A newfound confidence came hand-in-hand with a new school uniform, the fear of ridicule from peers, something that I experienced when younger was alleviated for them. Here, we empower children, we make them feel important, feel a worth and a sense of belonging – no extortionate cost, just understanding, empathy and accessibility.
I have done a lot in my career to help young people and struggling families, but working alongside the schoolwear association to launch the ‘Every Child Is Worth It’ campaign has been very special. I know a platform such as this can positively impact on thousands of children, it can support and change minds in an industry that has a long-term impact on families across the UK.
More and more young people are now struggling with their mental health, in a recent FOI request by the NSPCC, it revealed that in 2017/18, 18,870 children under the age of 11 were referred to specialist help for conditions, including anxiety and depression. A study by Oxford Brookes University ran a series of focus groups with students aged 13-17 to uncover their perceptions around wearing a uniform - feedback from the teenagers revealed they valued a consistent dress code that meant they didn’t have to decide what to wear each day to school, or worry about whether they would be bullied or criticised by their peers. The study found that a uniform promotes commonality among pupils, improves concentration and fosters a sense of pride, especially when they wear it in public.
Historically, for some schools there may have been a culture of over-priced school uniform and sometimes an elitist attitude about the accessibility of a quality school uniform. A school uniform will never be a ‘cure’ for children struggling with their mental health. But, if I can help these young people in anyway that I can, then I will.
School can be an incredibly challenging period in many young people’s lives, and anything that can be done to support these children, should be embraced by anyone that can help.