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The competition for school uniforms

Feb 20 2019 06:01
Ina Opperman

The Competition Commission has again urged schools to adhere to the school uniform guidelines aimed at curbing anti-competitive behaviour at schools, but financially stressed parents cannot help but wonder how long it will take before anybody actually does something that will make uniforms cheaper once and for all.

Parents must remember that they have the power to change the school uniforms at the school their children attend, but they must ask the right questions.

The department of education already issued the National Guideline on School Uniforms in 2015 to discourage the use of a single supplier approach because it adds to parents’ financial burden, but many schools still have exclusive contracts with one or two suppliers.

The commission concluded an investigation into anti-competitive behaviour at schools in January last year, which found that a number of schools still only used one supplier who did not obtain it in a competitive and transparent bidding process. Most schools surveyed by the commission were unaware of the guidelines.  

This kind of anti-competitive behaviour is bad for parents as well as new entrants to the market. Parents cannot choose where they want to buy uniforms and they have to fork out up to R350 for something as simple as a white shirt with the school badge. The exclusive contracts also create a barrier for new school uniform suppliers to enter the market.

Ordinary consumers are severely cash-strapped in South Africa, where jobs are scarce and they see their expenses increase monthly while their salaries do not. According to various surveys, it can cost up to R1 300 to buy a uniform for a Grade 1 child. This is a lot of money for parents to spend, although more generic school uniforms are cheaper.

The problem is that better schools usually have more exclusive and therefore more expensive school uniforms. Parents, who want to offer their children what they regard as a better education, already have to fork out thousands of rands in school fees and can often hardly afford the uniforms.

Guidelines

National Guidelines were already published in the Government Gazette in 2006 in terms of the Schools Act, which determines that school uniforms have an important social and educational objective. Public schools can keep their uniforms, but the availability of the uniforms may not restrict access to schools or interfere with people’s constitutional rights.

According to the guidelines stakeholders regard uniforms as a positive and creative way to identify school children to enhance discipline and safety at schools, while it also curbs peer pressure for expensive clothes, theft of expensive clothes and gang violence, as well as helping children to concentrate more.

The Human Rights Commission then indicated that most of these reasons are not supported by empirical research. It is not a given that children who do not wear school uniforms are ill-mannered, violent or members of gangs.

When other entities, such as bakers, did not adhere to the Competition Act, they were dealt with relatively quickly and received large fines. However, the commission now says that given the number of schools and other considerations, schools must focus on their primary function to educate and the commission was reluctant to engage them in a protracted litigation process.

According to the commission it has engaged all stakeholders, including private schools, suppliers, governing bodies and government and agreed on the implementation of school uniform guidelines issued by government.

The commission signed a memorandum of understanding with FEDSAS, aimed at educating and encouraging schools to comply with the guidelines and also engaged private schools. The Competition Tribunal was supposed to hear the outcome of this interaction on 6 February, but it has been postponed until a later date.

Other alternatives

Although this sounds like a very one-sided process that is not going anywhere fast, parents can make their voices heard where it matters. They should not forget how much they paid at the beginning of the year when the governing body meets later in the year. The governing body decides about the school uniform for the school.

The first thing parents should ask is whether the school has an agreement with a specific supplier and whether there is only one supplier. They should also ask if the agreement was made after an open tender process and about the duration of the agreement. The agreement should be with enough suppliers to give parents the biggest option possible of where they choose to buy and agreements should not be indefinite.

The next step will be to look at alternatives. Can children not wear short pants in summer and long pants in winter with short sleeve or long sleeve t-shirts? Why can they not wear denims in winter that are warmer and cheaper? What about sandals for summer and sneakers for winter? 

Schools can make rules that denims must not be frayed or bleached, that sandals should not have high heels or that sneakers can only be one colour. It is important to ensure that all parents can buy clothes from any retailer whether they are well-off or not.

Parents should prepare for changing the school uniform when the current agreement comes to an end and ensure that a fair process is followed if specific suppliers are appointed.

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