Pricey U.K. School Uniforms Have Parents Seeking Choices
Every year or two, Hadas Mesginn visits a small shop in west London to buy the uniform her daughter needs for classes at Fulham Cross Girls’ School. This year’s bill, she says, came to 170 pounds ($270).
The state school insists that its 600 pupils wear a pink and black uniform, sold only at Sogans in Hammersmith. That rankles parents like Mesginn, who is unemployed. She wants alternatives so she can shop at big chains with cheaper prices, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT)’s Asda unit, Marks & Spencer Plc (MKS) or the John Lewis Partnership Plc.
“There is only one shop” that sells the required clothing, Mesginn said after a recent trip to the store. “The school told me we have to shop here. It’s quite expensive.”
U.K. schools -- state and private -- typically require pupils to wear uniforms. Three in four U.K. state schools have exclusive agreements with one supplier for some compulsory items, according to the Office of Fair Trading, an antitrust regulator.
“It is too easy for schools to have these single-supplier arrangements where parents can end up paying more than they need,” U.K. Education Minister David Laws said at the Liberal Democrat conference on Sept. 15. “Parents need to be able to shop around to find the best deal.”
The Department for Education issued new guidance on Sept. 16 encouraging schools to avoid using a single uniform supplier or making “cashback” agreements, in which suppliers share the proceeds of uniform sales.
The OFT last year found 74 percent of state schools restricted where some parts of their uniforms can be bought. The regulator estimated parents overpay for the gear by 52 million pounds each year. The uniform market was 959 million pounds in 2010 and is expected to grow 19 percent by 2015, according to researcher Mintel Group Ltd.
Parents shopping at Sogans said they spend 150 pounds to 250 pounds to outfit each child at state schools in required blazers, trousers, skirts, dresses, shirts, coats, cardigans, gym outfits and art smocks embroidered with school crests or logos. At private schools, the total can top 500 pounds.
The red wool blazer worn by children at Downsend School in Leatherhead, a London suburb, is available only at Lester Bowden, a 115-year-old “traditional sporting outfitter” in nearby Epsom, for 88 to 93 pounds.
“We provide the best price that we can for the goods we sell that are chosen by the school,” said Lester Bowden manager Brian Chilman.
Manufacturers of schoolwear and retailers don’t oppose competition, says Matthew Easter, chairman of the Schoolwear Association, a trade group that represents uniform manufacturers and retailers.
“We want to provide the best deals,” said Easter, who is also managing director of manufacturer Trutex Ltd. “The way to achieve it is not to have multiple distribution channels. The best thing is to hold a tender process.”
The association met with education department officials two days after Minister Laws’ remarks to express members’ views and has also met with OFT officials, Easter said in a phone interview.
The OFT concluded that competition in uniforms had improved since it last examined the industry in 2006, “but by no means enough,” said competition lawyer Lambros Kilaniotis of Reynolds Porter Chamberlain. He expects the agency will decide within three years whether further action is needed.
To keep costs down, parents’ associations at some schools organize sales of used uniforms. At Downsend School, there’s “a bit of a stampede” during the sales, said Jill Rose, a mother of four who has two children at the school.
Parents are devising new ways to reduce uniform costs. Jacinta Evans, a mother of four with a son at New College School in Oxford, says she has seen mothers buy the school crest and sew it on a cheaper gray blazer from Marks & Spencer to avoid spending 89 pounds at the shop that sells the required one.
“Everything has to have the logo on it,” said Evans, who says she spent 650 pounds on uniforms for another son attending the private St. Edward’s School. “What’s to stop me from going and buying the cheap stuff and paying someone to sew on a cheap logo?”
Probably very little, said Stephanie Pattenden, headmistress of the private Francis Holland School in Chelsea for 15 years until she retired in 2012.
Girls at Francis Holland could have gotten away with cheaper uniforms from unauthorized suppliers, said Pattenden. “I wouldn’t,” she said, “be able to tell the difference.”
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