by Keeva Watson

It’s that time of year when parents across the country take their children on the annual school uniform shop. A new uniform heralds a new school year, a new class or even a new school. Whilst it can bring excitement to a little one, it can create added stress and financial pressure to their parents. School uniforms are costly.  Last year, The Children’s Society published a startling report, ‘The Wrong Blazer 2018’, on the increasing price of school uniforms and the impact it has on families. The average cost of a school uniform per year per child in Primary School is £255 and £340 per child in secondary school. The Children’s Society also found that ‘One million children live in families across England who are getting into debt to meet the rising cost of school uniforms’. One of our ROC Action Groups in Northern Ireland identified a practical way of reducing this burden and stress on families in their community.

Following their ROC Conversation in November, the ROC Lower Falls Action Group recognised a need to support families by setting up a school uniform project. The West Belfast foodbank report that ‘43% of families in West Belfast are on or below the poverty line struggling to raise their kids’. During the last week of term an incredible amount of pre-loved, outgrown uniforms for a local nursery, primary and secondary schools were donated. Volunteers from the local community helped to sort the many boxes of school uniform donations. On 24thand 25th July St Peter’s Immaculata Youth Centre was open to anyone who needed a uniform. 105 families, to date, have been provided with pre-loved blazers, shirts, trousers, skirts, summer dresses, PE kits, coats, shoes, and bag The uniforms were free and there was no criteria or forms to fill in – we wanted to help in a simple and practical way.  One parent got in touch with us after her visit to say ‘I want to thank all who organised the uniform event as it’s such a tremendous help. All involved today were so lovely, friendly, willing to help me find sizes. I was so nervous but my 5-year-old son and I were made to feel important even though I feel ashamed of my circumstances. My daughter was so excited about the navy coat. I felt very blessed today. Thank you all.’

The school uniform project was a truly humbling experience and it was a privilege to help in a small way. I’ll never forget when a ten-year-old girl picked out a particular style of the skirt she liked and asked if we had any in her size. After some minutes hunting through various boxes, there was a great sense of relief that we found not one but two skirts in her size in that style. The big smile that came onto her face would have lit up the room. I also recall a young boy delighted to see his school PE shirt. He found his size, put it on and wouldn’t take it off! The mum remarked ‘you’ve made his day, he had to wear his older sister’s shirt for sports day this year and now he has his own’.

We can easily overlook the simple things in transforming our communities, but most of the time they are the most effective. We encourage you to find out if there is a school uniform project in your community to support. If not, get in touch with the ROC team to hear how you can go about setting one up.