A former head teacher has hit out at schools which require parents to spend hundreds of pounds on branded uniforms.
As the new academic year begins this week, John Viner says one trust in particular is causing a headache for cash-strapped families.
The educational consultant, who runs a free uniform bank in Maidstone with his wife Liz, says parents visiting them are complaining of “demanding” uniform requirements of schools run by Valley Invicta Academies Trust (VIAT).
VIAT runs four secondaries and five primaries in the Maidstone and Malling area.
Mr Viner, a former head teacher at five different schools and current chairman of governors at Sandling Primary School in Maidstone, said: “The government has published statutory guidance to schools requiring them to keep uniforms affordable and advising that they limit the number of branded items.
“Some schools – Maplesden Noakes for example – have taken this advice to heart, sadly others seem to have ignored it altogether.”
“From what people tell us who visit the uniform bank, schools run by the Valley Invicta Academies Trust have one of the most demanding uniform requirements.”
The DfE’s statutory guidance states that “schools should keep the use of branded items to a minimum.”
It defines a “branded item” as not just an item with a logo, but any item of clothing with distinctive characteristics that make it unique to that school or trust.
As a general rule, if an item cannot be purchased at a range of retailers it is likely to be a branded item.
Mr Viner said: “VIAT has five compulsory items at its Lenham, Invicta Grammar and the School of Science and Technology (SST) academies, and six compulsory items at Valley Park.
“Furthermore, each school has ‘optional items’ that can only be bought from a specific provider – five for Lenham and Valley Park, four for SST and three for Invicta.
“This means that if a student wants to wear a jumper or sweatshirt, they cannot wear anything except the approved clothing.
“All of which effectively means that there are nine or 10 branded items required.”
The situation is no better in the trust’s primary schools. Aylesford Primary had a total of eight items that were either compulsory or optional but only from a specific provider, while Holborough Lakes Primary, Kings Hill and Leybourne Chase Primary all had 10.
East Borough Primary was an exception, with only four specific items – although the cost still amounted to £74.
The cost for a uniform set of badged items for a student at the School of Science and Technology works out at £176.90 for girls and £160.40 for boys – that’s not including any footwear or generic items.
The corresponding cost at Invicta is £146,20 for girls and £142.75 for boys – again without footwear.
At Valley Park, it is £152.75 for girls and £151.50 for boys, and at The Lenham School, it is £196.96 for girls and £171.04 for boys.
In every case, the girls’ uniform is more expensive.
Julie Derrick, the CEO for the Valley Invicta Academies Trust (VIAT), explained: “East Borough was the most recent school to join the trust and part of that process included an agreement that the uniform would be gradually changed over time, in consultation with staff and parents.
“That process is ongoing and uniform across the trust is due to undergo a full review again in 2024, when contracts are due for re-procurement.”
While a study by The Children’s Society found, nationally, 22% of parents reported their child had been given a detention for not wearing the correct uniform, a spokesman insisted that was not the policy at VIAT schools, however.
They explained: “While a student might be spoken to or warned about their uniform if they were not adhering to their school’s guidelines, they would not be ‘excluded’ from education.”
Dr Nick Ware is the chairman of trustees at Valley Invicta Academies Trust. He responded to Mr Viner’s comments.
He said: “In response to the government guidance, we have considerably reduced the number of compulsory branded items across the trust schools, including all PE kit items for pupils at our primary schools.
“Science lab coats and items of PE kit across the secondary schools, such as fleeces and tracksuit bottoms are also now optional.
“School blazers still carry a logo. This is an important part of ensuring our schools and pupils are identifiable.
“We ask for secondary school skirts and trousers to be embroidered with the school initials or logo.
“This helps avoid numerous styles and different quality skirts and trousers being worn.
“In our experience, this helps all children to feel equal.
“Additionally, we believe a high standard of uniform sets the tone for high standards of learning.
“We receive many compliments and positive feedback about our uniforms, and very few complaints.”
From this term, Valley Park School and The Lenham School are changing from black trousers and skirts to grey.
Dr Ware said: “This should also lower the cost of these items as our suppliers will be buying larger quantities of the same item.
“We support every family that requests financial assistance in buying a uniform for their children. We understand that uniform is a significant cost, particularly with more than one child attending school.
“Our assistance includes the purchase of PE kit and other items, as well as basic uniform.
“We would never expect a family to struggle financially as a result of having to buy a uniform which is why we are pleased to offer assistance wherever we can.”
Mr Viner, previously an Ofsted inspector, conceded that there was evidence that wearing a uniform increased academic attainment.
A worldwide study by researchers Chris Baumann and Hana Kriskova found that wearing uniforms led to better discipline and increased attention paid by the students.
But he said in another study by a New Zealand writer, Johana Reidy had found that “expecting teachers to enforce school uniform rules detracts from teaching, learning, and good relationships.”
Mr Viner suggested that in any case there were cheaper ways of providing uniforms.
He said: “One option is to simply sell the school badge or logo and allow parents to sew it onto a generic uniform.
“Our parent survey suggests those schools which are doing this win parental support.
“Two school dresses in Asda are only £11 a pair.”
The next free school uniform bank will be at St Paul’s Church, in Boxley Road, Maidstone, on Tuesday, from 8.15am until 9.30am.