On 15 October 2015, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued an open letter for the urgent attention of UK Head Teachers, governing boards and suppliers. The letter urges its readers to ensure parents are offered value for money when it comes to schools' uniform policies.
Following complaints from parents about the price and quality of uniforms, it is feared that a number of UK schools are engaged in anti-competitive arrangements with suppliers – for instance, where one or two specific retailers' stock lists are recommended. Such arrangements may breach Competition Law, which brings the risk of enforcement action, such as significant fines. We therefore advise that schools review their current uniform policies to ensure that they encourage healthy competition between suppliers and retailers.
CMA's Open Letter to Schools: Shopping Around
The CMA, the Government's competition watchdog, is responsible for investigating whether there may be breaches of EU or UK prohibitions against anti-competitive agreements. The Competition Act 1998 prohibits any agreement 'which may affect trade within the UK' and 'which has as its object or effect, the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the UK' (Section 2).
The CMA's letter, which is primarily addressed – but not limited to - state schools (including academies and free schools), follows on from a school uniform survey carried out by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), the predecessor to the CMA, in 2012. The OFT's campaign revealed some alarming statistics:
- 74% of state schools impose restrictions on choosing a school uniform supplier;
- Some parents and carers in England were being forced to pay up to £10 extra per item of uniform where schools had entered into exclusive arrangements with suppliers;
- Parents could be spending millions of pounds more than they need to because of exclusive deals between schools and suppliers; and
- The most common motives for these restrictions were stated to be the need to maintain quality and consistency.
When considering how uniform should be sourced, the letter advises governing boards to ensure that schools prioritise value for money, thereby carefully considering the views of parents and carers. In its letter, the CMA strongly recommends that schools review current uniform arrangements with any exclusive supplier to make sure that they encourage competition. The letter suggests that this can be achieved by appointing several outlets - or where there is a justification for a sole supplier arrangement, subjecting this to a regular and competitive tender.
Adhering to the Guidance
The letter also directs the reader to the guidance issued by the Department of Education ("DoE") in 2013. The DoE guidance, which is accessible online, sets out what a school should consider when developing or amending its uniform policy – it is helpfully split into considerations to be taken whensetting its uniform/appearance policy and considerations once a policy has been agreed. The guidance also sets out how schools should address complaints and challenges to school uniform policy and non-pupil compliance.
Although there has not been enforcement action to date, the CMA's Director of Enforcement warns that "[the CMA] will continue monitoring the sector and will consider taking enforcement action, if it is necessary." UK schools are therefore encouraged to bear this in mind when reviewing their uniform supply policies.