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Editorial: Schools must listen to parents on uniform costs

The cost of school uniforms is a familiar concern in Northern Ireland but this year the issue is being placed into even sharper focus as families struggle with soaring household bills.

It should be acknowledged that there are many positives to wearing a uniform and many parents accept that they are part of a school's identity, that they can in many circumstances represent value for money and they help to reduce the peer pressure associated with everyday clothes.

But the concerns raised this summer are not really about wearing uniforms so much as the high cost and lack of competition, particularly in post-primary sector, that can put a heavy financial burden on families.

As Northern Ireland Children's Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma has said, there are variations in approach across the school sectors, with many primary schools allowing generic skirts and tops with a badge sewn on.

It certainly helps families, particularly those with several children, to be able to source items from supermarkets and low cost retailers.

Even in primary schools there are inconsistencies. Some allow pupils to wear leggings and sweatshirts, which are comfortable, inexpensive, hard-wearing and easy to wash while others insist on shirts, ties, pinafores and other items which are less ideal for younger children and can lead to mounting costs.

However, Ms Yiasouma has pointed to huge variations in post-primary schools, especially the grammar sector, where the cost of a full uniform, including PE kit, can be up to £500-£600.

This is an enormous sum for many parents, some of whom are finding the cost of living crisis squeezing their household budgets like never before.

Education minister Michelle McIlveen has increased the school uniform grant for low income families by 20 per cent this year but she is being urged to do more.

Clearly, this needs to be looked at but the schools must also play their part.

Bishop Donal McKeown, chair of the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, told BBC Radio Foyle there was a 'tsunami of extra expenditure' coming and that schools needed to be sensitive to the financial pressures facing parents.

It has to be recognised that, as families prepare for the new school year, this is a time of increased anxiety for many who are worried about making ends meet.

This makes it all the more important that schools review their uniform policies to see how costs can be kept down to ease the pressure on those who are stretched financially.

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