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Herald On Sunday Editorial: School deals leave a sour taste

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Some schools are striking exclusive-supply deals with school uniform stockists. Photo / Thinkstock
Some schools are striking exclusive-supply deals with school uniform stockists. Photo / Thinkstock

If nothing else, our stories this week and last about schools cashing in on uniform sales should get us all thinking about the wisdom of requiring our children to dress in a special way just so they can be educated.

Our reports have revealed that parents faced with the need to shell out for winter school uniforms are having to pay over the odds because of arrangements by which schools make money from uniform sales.

The problem is that schools are striking exclusive-supply deals with stockists, locking others out in the cold and making a mockery of the notion of competition that underlies our consumer law.

The idea is that the school will get a piece of the action but, in the absence of competition, it's impossible to know whether the retail price just has the school's share added on; even if it does, as one parent remarked, it's donation by stealth.

The matter has attracted the attention of the Commerce Commission, which has dealt with more than two dozen complaints alleging that schools were breaching the Commerce Act by limiting the number of suppliers.

In one respect, it is easy to sympathise with suppliers: it's hardly worthwhile stocking uniforms for a relatively small school if they don't get the contract for the entire roll. And indeed, there is nothing wrong in principle with a school negotiating a single-supplier agreement, as long as it is transparent and it results in cost savings for parents.

But when the motive is - or purports to be - one of fundraising, it becomes very murky indeed. The business is negotiating the deal - and by implication the price - with someone who has a financial interest in the outcome, but is not the customer. There's a word for that, and it's not a pretty one.

The primary argument in favour of uniforms has always been that they erase the uncomfortable distinctions between rich and poor - a rather fanciful notion in an era when kids' cellphones proclaim their parents' status. But such utopian notions of egalitarianism probably seem a little arcane to parents who are struggling to come up with several hundred dollars for uniform costs and wondering whether they're being taken for a 10 per cent "donation" as well.

The statutory entitlement to "free enrolment and free education at any state school" rings a little hollow in parents' ears at the best of times. Yes, your kids get taught for nothing but you have to pay for everything other than instruction and if you don't make that "donation", you may have problems getting your son or daughter tickets for the ball.

In that environment, every dollar saved is one that is already spent elsewhere, and any arrangement that prevents cost savings has to be regarded with suspicion.

The fact that it has now spread to stationery supplies is even more galling. An exercise book is an exercise book, no matter whose corporate logo is on the front, and arrangements by which parents are effectively prevented from shopping around are entirely objectionable.

Back when Telecom - and later other telecommunications suppliers - allowed account holders to direct loyalty benefits to their local school, no one was standing at the school gate demanding to see the family phone bill before a child was admitted. But that is precisely analogous to what is happening here.

Children already place parents under pressure to shell out for certain accessories to ensure that they conform with their mates; any Mum or Dad who has tried to suggest that it is all right to have stationery that is not covered with a particularly proprietary brand of adhesive film will attest to that. But they don't need schools to add to the stress.

By all means let schools tell parents what the preferred supplier is and let them know that taking their business to that supplier will result in a spin-off for the school. But it is distasteful in the extreme to make it compulsory.

- Herald on Sunday

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