Parents have a love hate relationship with school uniforms. Uniforms make life easy when it comes to getting children and teens out the door for school in the morning and dampen demand for designer clothes from offspring.

Ask parents, however, if they have gripes and a whole host of complaints come flooding out. "Why isn't the school jacket waterproof"? "Clothes don't cost that much to manufacture". "They're poor quality, unsuitable for active boys, and the buttons fall off", "Why can't we buy generic and sew labels on like they do in the UK?" "Schools change their uniform too often and won't let children wear the old one." "The school takes kickbacks." "The girls skirt costs more than the boys' shorts." "My child was sent home for having the wrong shoes." And so on and so on and so on.

Uniforms, says Dr Elaine Webster of the University of Otago, who completed a PHD thesis on the subject, lessen socio economic differences between students allowing them to be treated more equally.

"The great benefit of uniform is it reduces the hierarchy," says Webster, who outlines her findings on her website


"Everyone looks the same. So you are not treated as if your social fate has been decided."

The answer to the question of whether parents really want uniforms even if they do grumble at the cost might come from Green Bay High School.

When Morag Hutchinson took over as Green Bay principal in 2005 the local community was "marching with its" feet from the school thanks to "rigorous competition" from its competitors. Hutchinson found that mufti wasn't popular and 90 per cent at the feeder intermediate schools wanted a uniform, so the school responded.

Otahuhu College gave its parents a say in choosing the uniform design and supplier. Despite being a decile 1 school the parents didn't choose the cheapest supplier, but looked for a balance between cost and quality, says principal Neil Watson.

Parents also complain that schools get "kickbacks" from uniform suppliers and some sell only through the school shop to profiteer. The reality is that what parents view as "kickbacks" schools see as sponsorship that goes to benefit the students in one way or another.

At Otahuhu College for example the previous supplier provided $10,000 of free sports uniforms for school teams. The current supplier subsidises the blazers so that the senior students whose aiga (whanau) are often on low incomes can look as smart as children from high decile schools.

Uniforms aren't something that the Ministry of Education has a particular view on as schools are responsible for determining their own policies.

Katrina Casey, head of sector enablement and support at the ministry says nonetheless that it's important that schools communicate very clearly with parents what their requirements are. Parents can then make informed choices when deciding which school to send their children to, says Casey.


Sadly communicating with parents about uniforms is something schools do badly. Very few parents understand what the uniforms cost to produce, market and sell and where the dollars are going. That lack of communication often leads to bitterness and distrust about the transparency of schools' finances.

The common belief that schools make a fortune from in-house uniform sales might not be true. The market is small and the mark-up often a lot lower than parents believe, says Webster. What's more, selling uniforms isn't a school's core business and the cost of keeping stock and running a shop can be quite high for a school. When the uniform changes, schools with in-house shops must swallow the cost of old stock, not the supplier.

Schools such as Green Bay High that do run in-house shops usually do it as a convenience for families, says Hutchinson. Green Bay High School is happy in the years it breaks even on its uniform sales.

Whether uniforms are affordable or not often comes down to the school's marketing not its mark-up. "It depends on whether the schools are there for the kids or the kids are there for (the school)," says Webster. Reputation building schools cost parents' pockets.

Schools can manage the cost down if they have their community at heart. Otahuhu College, which prides itself on its students looking good got the price down to $140 to $150 per student for a new uniform, says Watson.

Ironically schools sometimes make more money from their second hand uniform stalls with donated stock than they do from new, whilst fulfilling a need for families who couldn't afford new.

However the regular changing of uniform by some schools -- often when a new principal takes over- riles some parents because it means they can't buy second-hand or kit their kids out in hand-me-downs.

Unlike some schools, Otahuhu College allows students to wear the old colours until that uniform is worn out, not just for a year or so after the change. This ensures uniforms can be passed down from one member of the whanau to the next, not bought new for each child.

Likewise Aorere College's principal Greg Pierce says his school doesn't change any core aspect of the school's uniform on a regular basis.

Many secondary schools have a fundamentally different uniform for juniors and seniors meaning students get a maximum of three years' wear out of their uniforms. Aorere College keeps prices down by not significantly differentiating between junior school and senior school uniforms, says Pierce.

There are mixed views about whether school uniforms offer value for money. An embroidered logo adds far more to the price of a piece of uniform compared to generic clothing of the same quality, in part because of the small production runs.

Whilst schools may say that a $45 pair of sports or $85 jacket will last longer than a $12/$30 equivalent from Kmart or The Warehouse, not all parents agree, or would spend $45 or $85 or more on a single piece of clothing for their children in the normal course of events.

On the other hand the Kmart items might not last the two or three years they're needed. Uniform items cost a lot more, but they can sometimes be sold off on Trade Me for a decent sum of money if still in good condition, and the uniform design hasn't been changed.