School Uniforms: The Good, Bad and The Pricey!

School uniforms are mandatory in both private and public sector schools across the UAE. How then can something so ubiquitous be such a constant source of complaint? In this special feature for WSA, Senior Editor, Jenny Mollon takes a look at every aspect of the school uniform debate…purpose, price, quality, sustainability and more. Want to join the conversation on uniforms? Read on to find out how…
School Uniforms: The Good, Bad and The Pricey!
By Jenny Mollon
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At WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, we know that there are a couple of topics that will have UAE parents talking each and every September. In no particular order there will be, traffic and parking, irritation over school buses (and yes, we have recently covered that one!) and the purpose, cost and quality of school uniforms. But uniforms are just clothing our children wear each day, how can they be the source of such consternation? We take a look at all of the issues and find out.

School uniforms – why do our kids wear them?

The world is seemingly divided on the topic of school uniforms. In some countries, it would be rare to find a school that does not have a uniform. In the US, uniforms tend to be the preserve of elite private schools and a typical student would not need anything more than day to day clothing which fits a simple dress code. So, or those of us residing in a country keen on uniforms, here’s a simple question. What are they for?

Zara Harrington, Principal of Safa British School explains;

“For me, what is really important is that children feel part of a community at school and uniform really helps with this. For parents, uniforms ensure that there is no social bias whatsoever when it comes to the clothes children wear. There is a real equality in that. I believe that uniforms unite us in our diversity!”

At US curriculum school, GEMS Dubai American Academy parents, students and school leaders have worked together to simplify the school uniform. The school’s Superintendent/CEO, Tammy Murphy, wanted a uniform that was comfortable and made of high quality materials.

“Not unlike a school vision statement, uniforms provide a distinct school identity, thereby building school spirit. In consultation with the school community at GEMS Dubai American Academy, we recently updated the design of our uniforms to bring them more in line with current fashion trends, make more comfortable and ensure they’re made of higher quality material. Parents and students also concurred that, given our local climate, ties and scarves should no longer be a required part of the uniform.” Tammy Murphy, GEMS Dubai American Academy

The comments made by Ms Murphy and Ms Harrington were repeated by pretty much all schools we spoke to. Schools all referred to their practicality, comfort and that they engender pride in an organisation that is so central to their lives. A few also mentioned that they are a requirement of the UAE government as well. However, if the benefits of school uniforms was so obvious and plain for everyone to see, why then does the start of a new term always herald a myriad of parent complaints about them? Clearly something is not quite right...

Uniforms: What UAE parents say

We asked a number of parents to tell us their key concerns about uniforms in the UAE. We have made some of the comments anonymous at their request.

Two young kids, two days of swimming lessons, three expensive (and labelled!) items missing” Josette

“The prices are simply immoral. As for blazers for primary age children – it’s crazy. There is the environmental impact, sweat shop manufacturing, landfill, the list goes on”. Vikki, Mum and owner of The Plastic Free Weigh

“The materials used in uniforms are unsustainable. We need a rethink on clothing manufacture for everyone. Schools should lead the way and be the change” Anon

“I had a treat when I returned some shorts, as I had purchased different sizes to check. Was told no refund and issued a credit note that expired in 30 days… No mention of this when I was purchasing! So am now stuck with a credit note for 267 AED for a shop where I don't want to buy anything!” Anon

“I wince when I have to buy it. I always spend on ‘home’ clothes for the kids in the sales as that seems to make sense. Then I have to buy the uniform... I would never ever agree to pay those prices if I didn’t have to!” Emily

“I have two children, one in a primary school and one in secondary. The uniform changes frequently as they get older. The school does run a second-hand shop, which is great, but even there you are looking at 40-50 AED per item, for clothing that is not always in the best shape.

“For secondary school, we have PE kit, normal uniform, swimming, rugby and other extras. All branded, all expensive. Including shoes, I have spent nearly 1,500 AED on him alone.  In the UK, you can get cheaper generic uniforms. I am all for uniforms for safety and to stop kids getting into fashion wars, but something needs to change”. Liz

These comments suggest that concern come down to three issues: Cost, quality and sustainability.

School Uniforms: an international price comparison

Together with our colleagues at WhichSchoolAdvisor UK and WhichSchoolAdvisor Singapore, we have collated this price comparison, including four basic uniform items for a primary aged student. Of course, different schools will have different mandatory requirements for a ‘complete’ school uniform set, but we hope this table is indicative of pricing trends.

  SHIRT (x2) SKIRT (x2) SHORTS (x2)  PE SHIRT (x2) TOTAL  (8 ITEMS)
UK NON BRANDED (GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS)  AED    22.50  AED    45.00  AED    45.00  AED      10.00  AED   122.50
UK BRANDED (GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS)  AED    90.00  AED    45.00  AED    45.00  AED      70.00  AED   250.00
SINGAPORE PRIVATE SCHOOLS  AED  100.00  AED  180.00  AED    26.50  AED      85.00  AED   391.50
UAE PRIVATE SCHOOLS   AED  126.15  AED  163.60  AED  128.10  AED    178.85  AED   596.70
UK PRIVATE SCHOOLS  AED  140.00  AED    70.00  AED  160.00  AED    300.00  AED   670.00

Notes on the Table:
Includes average costs for:
• basic, non-branded, supermarket bought items for UK state (non-fee paying) schools

• branded/logo items for UK state schools
• the average cost for the 8 items from two UK private schools, two Singapore private schools, two UAE private schools – for each country we have a chosen a top tier and median fee school

Clearly, UAE uniform prices come close to being the most expensive in our international comparison and purchasing enough uniform for a full week, for multiple children could well be an investment that runs into thousands of dirhams. With many expats comparing these costs with the cheaper costs of uniforms in their home countries, it is perhaps small wonder that this is an annual source of complaint.

Why are uniforms so very expensive in the UAE?

After much searching, we were unable to elicit a satisfactory answer to this question. Many of the parents we spoke with believe that their schools enter commercial partnerships with uniform manufacturers, and that these arrangements can include a profit share on uniforms for the school. We were unable to find a school willing to comment on this, or evidence to back up the claims.

Jacques Rheeder, Managing Director, of uniform supplier, Threads, told WhichSchoolAdvisor.com instead that the manufacture and supply of the high quality uniforms it supplies had a high degree of complexity:

“Threads only works with manufacturers that strictly comply with the highest international audit standards. For our woven fabrics, we have moved to cotton blends, introducing enhanced properties such as easy-care finishing, stain resistance, shrink recovery, and anti-pilling. For our PE kits, we use state-of-the-art fabrics specifically developed for active wear, with a focus on comfort and hygiene. These fabrics are fast-drying and moisture wicking, breathable and anti-bacterial, as well as providing UV protection. We are focused on minimising our environmental impact, and have found ways to reduce the amount of water used in the weaving, knitting and dyeing processes.” Jacques Rheeder, Threads

According to several reports on social media, some enterprising parents have found a novel way to reduce costs: having uniform items copied by independent tailors. Concerned about the legal issues here, we ran this idea past Dubai’s education authority, the KHDA.

A spokesperson responded;

“This will depend on the parent-school contract. If the uniform is listed under mandatory fees, parents will have to buy the uniform supplied by the school. If the uniform is listed under the “optional fees” category and the parents haven’t opted for it, they can have the uniforms tailored or buy them from another supplier.” Dubai's KHDA

Our advice – check that contract!

Uniforms: a sustainable option?

Matthew Benjamin is the Founder & CEO of homegrown, sustainable uniform brand, Kapes. We talked to Matthew and asked if the future will see uniforms that are both sustainable and pocket friendly. He certainly hopes so:

We are in a climate crisis. With fashion accounting for 10% of emissions, the sector must change. School uniforms are often made using oil and gas derived synthetic materials in order to produce polyester. They then shed harmful microplastics, and end up being incinerated or in landfills where they can take hundreds of years to decompose. Conventional cotton is laden with chemicals and impossible to recycle when mixed with synthetic fibres.

“If uniforms are made from cheap, synthetic materials, why are they so expensive? Well, schools enter long contracts with a designated supplier, (often with a revenue share in place) which ties them to unsustainable practices for years.

"Contrary to popular belief, sustainable options need not cost more, due to the fact that current uniform prices are so inflated. However, schools and suppliers must work in partnership to champion a model which creates a truly sustainable business”. Matt Benjamin, Kapes

School uniforms (much like buses and exams!) are clearly a many faceted topic.  If you have insights into this topic, and want to share your views, why not join us in the discussion on our supportive and friendly parents Facebook Group - Parents United UAE!

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