The uniform solution to basic school wear


You're no sooner out of one than you wish your children were in one. School uniforms are increasingly parents' salvation from the spiralling costs and competition involved in clothing kids these days. Designer label items like Nike and Adidas runners, Umbro shirts and Levi jeans are at the top of every child's wish list. School uniforms are making it easier for parents to deny incessant requests for the latest gear.

But despite the long-term relief, the initial outlay for some uniforms may be very restrictive. Generic and custom-made uniforms are available, but schools decide their own requirements. The Department of Education has no policy on uniforms, but suggests clothing decisions are discussed and made in conjunction with parents.

Usually, a basic uniform for primary school girls consists of a pinafore, blouse and jumper. Secondary school girls need a skirt, blouse, jumper or blazer. Boys uniforms usually include a shirt, trousers, tie and a jumper or blazer. Shoes, socks and gym requirements vary greatly from school to school.

In 1995, the last year the National Parent's Council (NPC) Post Primary compiled a "cost-of-going-to-school" survey, the average price of a school uniform, for a first-year secondary school student, was found to exceed £142 per year. This, combined with an average in excess of £67 for sports gear totals £209. The NPC believes prices have not risen significantly since then.

"If they wear a jumper, blouse, skirt, it all adds up. In some cases you're stuck with the one shop. The school decides who supplies the uniform," says Mr John Whyte, public relations officer for NPC.

"We want schools to be practical. Many now also require sports uniforms which are very expensive. Sometimes it's £40 for a track suit, although the price totally varies depending on the quality," he said.

Archbishop Ryan National School in Lucan, Dublin has a relaxed uniform policy says principal, Mr Tadhg O'Donoghue. "Boys and girls are required to wear plain navy uniforms or have an option to wear a track suit with school crest," he said. There are no mandatory requirements for shoes and socks. The main items, usually purchased at Dunnes or Roches Stores, are navy trousers or skirt, blue shirt and navy jumper of any style.

Items purchased directly from the school include the mandatory navy and blue striped tie, £3, or optional track suit with insignia from £16 to £17. Mandatory uniform items for this school, depending on size and style, total £16 to £33 for girls and £19 to £41 for boys.

Generally, price depends on which items are required. Custom-made uniforms, often the reserve of fee-paying schools, can be very expensive with the total cost for a uniform and gym gear ranging from £200 to £300.

With 470,000 students registered for primary level and 370,000 for secondary during 1996-1997, competition among uniform suppliers is fierce.

As more schools and parents decide uniforms are a good idea, attracting their business has become imperative. Dunnes, Tesco, Arnotts and Roches Stores all sell generic items in basic colours. In the last 10 years, Dunnes Stores has developed a basic uniform line to cater for students of all ages. Tesco created its own-brand uniform this year and offers coupons with £2 off every £10 spent.

The custom-made uniform market is smaller, but even more competitive. Arnotts appears to supply the majority of schools and is estimated to have between 60 and 70 schools contracted this year.

Independent specialist retailers do well in towns, if they've had a long-term relationship with schools, or offer competitive prices. Two Dublin shops, Moorkens and Guineys have 35 and 21 school contracts respectively.

Some schools use two outlets for custom designed uniforms. Since its inception 40 years ago, Our Lady of Benada Secondary School in Tourlestrane, Sligo, has required uniforms. Today, the boys purchase them from Gillespie's and girls from Morahan's Drapery, both in Tobercurry.

A school may have two uniforms depending on the child's age. St Vincent's Christian Brothers' Secondary School in Glasnevin asks juniors to wear crested royal blue jumpers, grey shirts and trousers with a royal blue crested tie. Seniors wear navy crested jumpers, blue shirts, navy trousers and a navy crested tie. All items are available form Guineys and the total price ranges from £47 to £56.

"At secondary level, school uniforms are more or less taken for granted. Some schools have a change in uniform from the junior cycle and senior cycle. I don't think it's a good idea because you could just change the tie. We're saying they should spend as little money as they can, anything to avoid putting expenses on parents," says Mr Whyte.

Parents have come up with some interesting alternatives. One school has a dozen blazers purchased by the parents' committee that are used just for special occasions, says Mr Whyte. "It's the same idea as organising book rental schemes, anything that will reduce the expenses," he said.

Administrators believe children and not parents benefit most from uniforms. "I think they're a good idea. It cuts out the competition between the fancy clothes. Every child is on a level pegging with the child sitting beside them, whether they're from a wealthy to poor family," says Mr O'Donoghue.

Although St Vincent's Christian Brothers Secondary School in Glasnevin has required uniforms for more than 15 years, principal Tim Hurley has recently discovered a side benefit.

"It's helped us a lot as we had a lot of casual theft, especially during public exam times," says Mr Hurley. Once they required uniforms during exams, the ability to spot outsiders increased. "From a security point of view, it's valuable," he said.

Uniforms may also assist with discipline. "It's a deterrent to kids because they can be identified even outside of school," says Mr Hurley.

Last spring, Parent & Teacher Magazine conducted a survey of 334 primary and secondary school teachers on the subject of school uniforms. Of these 76 per cent were primary school teachers and 24 per cent were secondary school teachers.

Eightysix per cent of the respondents said uniforms were compulsory in their schools. An overwhelming number, 91 per cent, said they believed uniforms were not overpriced.