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Uniform Problems - Is your school affected?

on Thursday, 12 November 2015.

The Competition and Markets Authority ('CMA') has written an open letter to head teachers, governing bodies and suppliers about school uniform costs and value for money.

The CMA is concerned that the effect of restricting uniform suppliers/outlets, setting of prices and long term exclusive arrangements could breach competition law. Although the main target audience of the letter is the maintained schools/academy sector, a CMA spokesperson has confirmed that the principles should also apply to the independent sector.

Significant numbers of schools, seeking to maintain quality and consistency, may have placed restrictions on outlets providing uniforms, but this, in turn, can lead to increased costs for parents and carers.

The CMA has intervened (following concerns first raised in 2006 and then in 2012), advising schools to carry out a review of current practices and to take action where those arrangements do not appear to be offering value for money. The CMA considers that increasing competition is likely to provide greater choice for parents and carers, and will encourage suppliers and retailers to offer improved deals to win new business.

What can schools do?

In the open letter, schools are recommended to:

  • review current uniform arrangements to ensure that there is competition between suppliers and retailers
  • where an exclusive supplier or retailer has been appointed, consider whether this can be justified and ensure the arrangement is subject to competitive tender on a regular basis (we would suggest at least every 3 years)
  • consider DfE best practice on developing a school uniform policy, which places an emphasis on the need to secure value for money when selecting school uniform suppliers and retailers
  • consider affordability concerns voiced by parents and carers, and whether these might be addressed by the use of more generic items sourced from a wider variety of outlets (including supermarkets)
  • continue to meet regularly with suppliers and retailers to ensure quality and affordability are maintained

What can suppliers do?

If you have a current exclusive arrangement, suppliers are advised to check it very carefully to ensure that it and your pricing policy do not fall foul of competition law.

What are the consequences of breaching competition law requirements?

  • There are a wide range of sanctions for breaches of competition law including fines for undertakings involved in unlawful activity of up to 10% of their turnover, and in some instances criminal sanctions apply to individuals;
  • Reputational impact;
  • Complaints to third parties such as the European Commission are not time limited and are free of charge, so may present the biggest practical risk.

What will the CMA do?

The CMA has confirmed that it will continue to monitor whether school uniform arrangements are anti-competitive and, if so, whether enforcement action should be taken. Across the sector, further engagement will also be entered into with national associations and regional schools commissioners to encourage further change.

VWV can help with reviewing your uniform purchasing arrangements for compliance and advice on procurement processes to put in place new contracts.

For more information on this and how it affects you and your school please contact Allison Cook in our Independent Schools team on 0117 314 5466.

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