Crippling cost of living rises means that families in parts of the city are struggling to pay utility bills, put food on the table and afford the basics, including next year’s school uniform.
The average cost of uniform is around £300 per child per year which makes planning for the year ahead incredibly stressful for an increasing number of families.
In a positive move, new legally binding rules that recently came into force means that all schools in England must review their uniform policies and take steps to cut the cost of uniform for families from September. The guidance to schools requires them to promote secondhand uniform options and reduce branded items.
However, the legislation is not being enforced widely or strongly enough in some schools in Leeds, according to the people behind the city’s innovative Leeds School Uniform Exchange (LSUE).
LSUE was launched in 2020 by Leeds-based social enterprise Social Business Brokers as part of their Zero Waste Leeds initiative. It is a city wide approach that makes it easy for families to share and access free good quality, secondhand school uniform. It was designed to be a grassroots, community-led, long term sustainable initiative that makes uniform accessible and affordable for all families, whilst also reducing waste. It is also a ready made solution for schools in the city, giving them a head start in helping to comply with the new legislation.
Gill Coupland, Co-director of Social Business Brokers said: “Demand for school uniform over the last six months has increased massively and we know that’s because more families than ever are struggling to afford the basics. If you’ve got 2 or 3 children then that’s £600 - £900 per year - a huge burden for families, many of whom may already be in debt. Our uniform exchange takes some of the stress away.
“We can see that some schools completely get the benefits of making it easy to share second hand uniform but too many are still wedded to the idea of expensive branded uniform that is simply unaffordable to many and creates unnecessary stress. Now more than ever we need all schools to work with the legislation, reducing branded items and promoting and supporting good quality second hand options like Leeds School Uniform Exchange.”
Over 90% of schools in Leeds are now covered by a uniform exchange. Some are Facebook groups - often run by groups of parents, based around one neighbourhood, or a particular school. Others are run by schools - often starting with unclaimed lost property, and uniform donated at the end of term. And then there are others run by community groups - often as an add-on to an existing activity, such as a food bank or a charity shop.
To make school uniform even more accessible to families, pop up events are happening right across the city over the summer - with free uniform available at a number of Leeds City Council's Breeze In The Park events (listed below).
Information about these and the year round uniform exchanges can be found on Leeds School Uniform Exchange website. Exchanging amongst families also happens on a Leeds School Uniform Exchange Facebook group, which has over 2700 active members.
Gill added: “Over the summer, families can visit one of the many pop-up shops happening across Leeds and get free good quality uniform for their children - one less thing to worry about as the new school year draws closer. No forms to fill in. No questions asked. No hoops to jump through. Just easy access to great quality secondhand uniform. Typically at one of these events around 400 to 500 items of free uniform are given away - helping to save families in Leeds thousands of pounds.
"At our first event in Harehills we shared over 500 items of uniform in just five hours. We're expecting to share thousands of items of uniform over the summer.
“The way we see it is that today you might be asking for uniform for your child but in six months time, you might well be offering stuff that they’ve grown out of. It’s about sharing, mutual support and generosity. It’s also about waste reduction and in a city where we throw away around 4000 tonnes of clothing every year - that’s really important.”
Speaking about the new school uniform bill, Gill added: “The new legislation follows years of campaigning by The Children's Society and Mike Amesbury MP on the issue of affordablilty of school uniform. All schools need to follow the guidance and are being asked to start making changes before the new school year in September 2022.
She said: “We are encouraging schools to get involved by promoting their local Leeds School Uniform Exchange to their families, and if there isn’t one, to contact us to get help to set one up. We are working hard to fill in any gaps across the city. If you’re a school in Leeds that doesn’t have a local exchange or know where your local one is, then the first step is to search on the map on our website or get in touch with us and we can explore opportunities together to encourage parents, or perhaps a local community group, to set one up.
“We’d like to thank the organisations that have supported the project so far - Leeds City Council and Leeds Community Foundation. If you’d like to help make school uniform reuse an everyday, normal, easy thing to do and accessible to people all parts of the city, please get in touch to speak to us about ways of sponsoring or funding our work.
Sarah Wayman, Head of Systemic Impact at The Children’s Society, which campaigned for the new guidance, said: “The new statutory guidance for schools on ensuring uniforms are
affordable has come at just the right time as many families struggle to make ends meet amid the spiraling cost of living.
“We’ve produced resources for schools on implementing the new guidance and many have
already taken positive action to ensure their uniforms are more affordable, including by
improving access to second-hand uniforms and directing parents to local exchange schemes.
“We are urging all schools which have not already made changes to their uniform policies to do so as soon as possible and help save families money ahead of the autumn term.
“This will benefit children too, as they may suffer bullying by their peers and face punishment by teachers if they turn up wearing ill-fitting or incorrect uniform.”
For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Contact – For interview Gill Coupland email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07840 167258. See comments from Leeds’ parents about the issue here. Filming opportunities at pop-up shops across Leeds.
Facts and figures
Latest figures show that almost a quarter of children (24% or 36,496 under 16s) in Leeds are living in poverty and that 75% of these are living in working house-holds - an increase of 9% in a year.
Useful summary giving background for new legislation on Children’s Society website - ‘Too many children are growing up without the basics they need. Almost 1 in 3 children are growing up in poverty, and millions more families are living on the edge. This makes it more likely a child will struggle in school, and not achieve their full potential.’
Tracy Cook, Leeds School Uniform Exchange Co-ordinator, at a recent pop-up uniform exchange in Bramley, west Leeds. Photo: Zero Waste Leeds (Download here)
A selection of free, secondhand school uniform at a recent Leeds School Uniform Exchange pop-up in Bramley, west Leeds. Photo - Zero Waste Leeds. Download here
Leeds School Uniform Exchange makes it easy for people across Leeds to share good quality, secondhand school uniform. Photo - Zero Waste Leeds. Download here