Parents should be able to buy school uniforms at the best possible price rather than be forced to pay a premium at exclusive suppliers, the competition watchdog has today announced.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has sent an open letter to head teachers, governing boards and suppliers urging them to let parents buy uniforms that are more affordable. The letter should arrive before the half-term break, when many parents may have to buy additional items for their children.
It comes after the CMA received complaints from parents concerned about the prices and quality of uniforms as they bought them for the start of the school year in September. See MoneySavingExpert.com's Cheap School Uniform page to cut the cost of school clothes.
The letter explains that some parents in England had been forced to pay up to £10 extra per item of uniform where schools had appointed exclusive suppliers.
A survey in 2012 by the now defunct Office of Fair Trading found 74% of state schools placed restrictions on where uniforms could be bought, leading to parents paying £5 to £10 more for individual items. In total, parents were overspending by £4.9 million each year for primary school children and by £5.5 million for secondary school children.
And in MoneySavingExpert.com's poll asking parents whether they're allowed to buy cheap school uniforms, only 61 out of 1,956 voters whose child goes to a state secondary school said the whole uniform could be generic/from a supermarket, whereas 1,817 said a few items must be from set suppliers, or everything but the shirt/trousers must be branded from a specific supplier.
The CMA adds that the most common reason for imposing restrictions on uniform was because schools wanted to "maintain quality and consistency".
Suppliers and retailers to check they're not in breach of competition law
As a result, the CMA warns that these arrangements "may not be offering parents value for money" and is therefore urging these suppliers and retailers to check they're not in breach of competition law.
It is advising school governing-boards to review uniform arrangements to ensure there is competition between suppliers and retailers and is urging that value for money is prioritised when choosing a uniform policy.
Further, the CMA is inviting potential suppliers and retailers who are finding it difficult to sell school uniforms because of exclusive supply arrangements to complain to it.
'It's important parents and carers are able to shop around'
CMA senior director Ann Pope says: "Buying school uniforms can be very expensive and particularly hits low income families and those with a number of children, so it is important parents and carers are able to shop around.
"We urge everyone involved to ensure that they are providing a good service to parents and carers and complying with Department for Education guidance.
"We will continue monitoring the sector and will consider taking enforcement action, if it is necessary."