In October the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published an open letter for the attention of head teachers, governing bodies and uniform suppliers. The letter seeks to ensure that parents are offered value for money when schools set their uniform policies.
The letter follows complaints from parents about the price and quality of school uniforms, and a 2012 investigation carried out by the former Office of Fair Trading (OFT). As a result, the CMA is concerned that a number of schools are engaged in anti-competitive arrangements with suppliers. This may even include, for example, where one or two specific retailers’ stock lists are recommended.
A breach of competition law may run the risk of enforcement action including fines. We are therefore advising schools to review the letter and their current uniform policies to ensure that they are not anti-competitive and encourage healthy competition between suppliers and retailers.
About the CMA
The CMA is the Government’s competition regulator. It is responsible for investigating potential breaches of UK or EU prohibitions against anti-competitive arrangements. The Competition Act 1998 prohibits any agreement “which may affect trade within the UK” and “which has as its object or effect, the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition within the UK”.
The letter is principally concerned with maintained schools and academies but also applies to independent schools. In it the CMA stresses the importance of value for money as well as liaising with parents. It also advises schools review current uniform arrangements with any exclusive supplier to ensure these encourage competition and, where there is a justification for a sole supplier arrangement, ensuring that there is a regular and competitive tender.
Complying with the DfE Guidance
The letter also refers to the 2013 guidance issued by the Department for Education (DfE). The DfE guidance sets out what a school should consider when developing or revising its uniform policy. The guidance deals separately with considerations when setting the uniform policy once the policy has been agreed. The guidance also sets out how schools should address complaints and challenges to school uniform policy.