Monday 26 August 2019

The great uniform debate

LIKE the pupils at her school, Carol Lanigan, principal of the Bray School Project, an Educate Together school in Bray, Co Wicklow, never wore a uniform as a child.

"I haven't worked in a school with a uniform in over 25 years," she says. "I don't have particularly strong views either way but I suppose my preference is for no uniform. I like seeing all the kids expressing themselves through what they wear."

At the Bray School Project children follow a dress code.

Clothes should be comfortable, manageable for the children and appropriate. There is a school tracksuit but that's optional.

"The policy was here when I arrived and everyone seems to be comfortable with it," says Lanigan.

"In other schools it can be very divisive issue. People have strong opinions either way. I can see both sides of the argument, I have to say."

The issue of whether children should wear uniforms to school is a thorny one. It's also back on the agenda, as parents struggle to deal with back-to-school costs, at a time when family finances are tight.

Uniforms are by far the biggest cost of the return to school. A recent survey by the Irish League of Credit Unions showed that of the €400 the average Irish family spend per child going back to school, uniforms, including shoes, accounted for €229.

Part of the problem is that many schools still insist that uniforms should be purchased from a designated shop, thereby pushing costs up.

A survey by the National Consumer Agency showed that 80pc of primary schoolchildren and 87pc of post-primary schoolchildren are obliged to buy uniforms from a specific shop.

Most parents want to be able to shop around for the various uniform items and sew on a school badge where required.

As a contributor to the Barnardos Back to School survey pointed out: "I have to pay €30 per jumper per child, and they will need two each so that's €120 on jumpers alone.

"I have enquired with manufacturing companies on the cost of crests and was told it is between €1.50 and €5 for the crest. If I could buy the crest separately and get the jumper in a chain store I would save lots of money. It's a joke that this option is not available."

Yet another contributor wanted to do away with uniforms altogether.

"Stop wasting our money on uniforms, they are unnecessary and over-priced."

The policy at Educate Together schools is for students to wear their own clothes.

"Uniforms certainly don't serve any educational purposes -- some would argue that they can interfere with a child's education if they are source of conflict with teachers, or if the cost is an issue," says Emer Nowlan, Educate Together's head of education.

The dress code in Educate Together schools is developed by parents, teachers and students. "It promotes safety, learning and equality," says Nowlan.

One of the biggest arguments many parents put forward in favour of uniforms is that they stop any potential competition among children.

According to Nowlan though, Educate Together schools use an Ethical Curriculum to encourage students to consider issues around peer pressure, gender, branding an materialism. "In this way, they develop responsibility and confidence in relation to what they wear," she says.

A policy of no uniforms would certainly be cheaper than insisting parents buy uniforms from designated shops. But if parents had the freedom to buy uniforms from chain stores, it is arguable whether a no-uniform policy is actually cheaper.

The difference in price between uniforms bought from specialised suppliers and the same items in a chain store is considerable. For example, a polo shirt for a primary school child costs about €13 from a specialised supplier.

The same item, without the school crest, can be purchased for as little as €4 in a chain store.

The current economic downturn has bought this issue to a head. Ann Fitzgerald, chief executive of the National Consumer Agency, is calling for school boards of management to allow parents to shop around for uniforms, on the basis that it could lead to significant cost savings.

For those who really are struggling to cope with uniform costs there is a Back to School Clothing and Footwear allowance which is calculated on the basis of the parents' income.

Children up to 11 years old are eligible for an allowance of €200, where older children can get €305.

Sadly, 75pc of parents who receive the allowance say it is insufficient to cover back-to-school needs.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, said the minister was aware of the financial burden specialised uniforms imposed on parents.

"It's something we would like to address," she said.

But it's unlikely that the issue will be dealt with this year.

For the moment, it appears that many parents will not be able to shop around for the best deal on school clothes.

Irish Independent Supplement

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