The uniformity of rising school costs

It's hard not to feel for Heidi Brodie. Faced with forking out up to $500 for a Nayland College uniform for her 13-year-old daughter, the Mapua mum was feeling desperate and stressed.

"I wasn't eating properly, was really poor . . . it was really bad," she told the Nelson Mail. Fortunately, she received a Youth Education Fund grant through the Nelson Budget Service and Rutherford Rotary. It contributed nearly half of what she needed to outfit her daughter. Problem solved - up to a point.

However, it is clear that New Zealand's "free" education system is becoming dearer by the year, and big numbers of parents are struggling to send their children off to school appropriately equipped and dressed. The budget service says it has been so inundated with requests that some deserving families are missing out on assistance.

It is not only about uniforms, including suitable footwear. There are also school fees, extracurricular costs, "voluntary donations" and other expenses ahead.

Soon, all secondary school students will need to turn up each day with their own computer, costing on today's prices anywhere from around $500 to $4000-plus - adding hugely to the "stationery" bill. New entrants at Garin College are expected to bring their own laptop or similar from next week, and "bring your own device" trials were held at Nayland last year and will continue in 2013.

Coming as it does a month after Christmas, and with other holiday period needs often adding to family budget pressures, the back-to-school spend-up must be a time of dread for some. In light of such stress, perhaps it is time for schools to reconsider the true benefits, and costs, of insisting on students wearing uniforms.

It is often said that uniforms reduce peer pressure, by curbing the ability of the offspring of rich parents to rock up to school each day wearing the latest designer labels. However, some year 9 students will be clothed in obviously second-hand uniforms from day one of the new school year, whether handed down from older siblings or bought from used clothing stalls. And there are numerous ways in which rich young brats can exaggerate their good fortune, should they so choose.

One reason uniforms are popular with so many school boards and principals is the belief that they engender school pride and strengthen a sense of collective identity, while making it more likely that students fearful of being identified will tend to behave themselves in public.

Though successive generations have wrought concessions over individual rights, a "uniformity" of behaviour is still expected of most students. Common clothing and other rules help to create a culture where that is most easily achieved.

Schools play a key role in maintaining societal standards - one that becomes more critical in the face of parenting best described as feral. Perhaps uniforms do stack up, but they can impose a big burden on some parents. One way to settle the debate would be to make wearing them a matter of individual choice, with firm but reasonable rules around acceptable "civvies". But that would be a step too far for most school boards to consider.