Are School Uniforms Beyond their Sell-By-Date?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 22 November 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education Update; School Uniforms

The Children’s Society has reignited a debate about the value and role of school uniforms, as new statutory guidance is published by the Department for Education. These new directives will instruct schools in England to ensure their uniform is affordable. They will be expected to have taken steps to follow the guidance before parents buy uniforms for the academic year starting in September 2022. For example schools will have to make sure second-hand uniforms are available, keep branded uniform items to a minimum and be advised to allow more high-street options, such as supermarket own-brand uniforms. Is this a moment then to honestly ask ourselves whether school uniforms still have a place in our modern world?
School uniforms: New legally-binding rules will force schools to cut uniform costs for parents (

So where are we on this issue here in Northern Ireland? Like many of my school leader colleagues, I have struggled in my time to reconcile the rights and individual freedoms of pupils with the school uniform and appearance code which I was responsible for enforcing. There are a whole raft of problems for schools associated with this including the acceptability of things like piercings, the pressure from girls to be allowed to wear trousers rather than skirts, whether makeup is permissible and of course hair styles or colours which do not conform to the regulations.

My instinct to preserve the long tradition of school uniforms is rooted in the belief that the ethos, atmosphere, discipline and sense of belonging which uniforms generate are valuable assets to schools and are in the best interests of pupils. There are of course strong counter arguments against making  uniforms mandatory for pupils and these need to be carefully considered.

School leaders across the country will recognised the scenario where a pupil, backed by often vociferous parents, insists on ignoring the school uniform code with a particular appearance requirement. These issues are particularly difficult to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction and while the pressure which a young person may feel to conform to a certain fashion statement is real and may have mental health links, the school cannot continually make individual exceptions while continuing, in their view, to protect pupils from exactly this kind of pressure.

These issues are playing out against a backdrop of massive changes in society and the increasingly dominant role of a media driven fashion and celebrity culture. There is a reality to face that schools have to move and keep pace with changing social norms, but it is really difficult to see how they can or should respond to every new fad that young people are sold.

The new guidance from The Department of Education in England is however not a challenge to the efficacy of school uniforms but rather an attempt to mitigate the negative side effect of unreasonable cost to poorer families.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi in a statement on the guidance said that;

 “School uniform provides a sense of identity and community for children and young people, and should be a real source of pride. But it must never be a burden for parents or a barrier to pupils accessing education. This new binding guidance will help to make uniforms far more affordable for families by driving costs.”

The guidance will require schools to use competitive and transparent contracts with suppliers, and to publish their uniform policy on their website.
School uniforms: New legally-binding rules will force schools to cut uniform costs for parents (

Responding to this initiative Geoff Barton for ASCL writes;

“We fully support this guidance. Many schools have a uniform policy in order to give students a sense of identity and pride in their school, and to avoid the pressure children would feel if there was no policy and their peers wore expensive items and fashions they could not afford”. 

“However, schools are acutely aware of the need to keep uniform costs to a minimum, particularly as they often have many students who come from disadvantaged homes. They deal on a daily basis with the impact of the high level of child poverty the government has failed to address.”

James Bowen, director of policy for  NAHT, also said that;

 "It's important to remember that a large number of schools already work extremely hard to ensure that their uniform is affordable for families. They also run schemes to provide support for families who might be struggling with the cost of uniform and therefore NAHT fully support the move to ensure that uniform remains as affordable as possible in every school.

"We know that an increasing number of families have come under financial pressure due to the pandemic, so measures that could reduce the cost of uniform are certainly welcome."

Currently in Northern Ireland, uniform policy is not subject to statutory regulation but falls to schools to determine. The Department of Education’s position is that;

"The day-to-day management of schools, including school uniform policy, is a matter for school principals, subject to any directions that might be given by the board of governors."

However, the department issued updated guidance in 2018 which "advises" schools to keep costs to a minimum.

It asks schools to "ensure that items are available 'off the peg' from a number of retail outlets so that the school uniform does not become a barrier for children from low income families".

The vast majority of parents and teachers are probably in favour of the stability and cost effectiveness that uniforms bring to family budgets given that the schools are sensible about uniform design and suppliers. Although pupils may complain too, secretly most of them are probably grateful of the relief that uniform wearing gives from the pressure to keep up with classmates in the fashion stakes.  I am also sure that there would be broad agreement among school leaders that a move away from traditional school uniforms would inevitably lead to a detrimental change in classroom culture and not be in the best interest of children.

This article is correct at 22/11/2021

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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