Uniform cartels must be broken

Monica Cheru Creative Editor
“We have a few vacancies to fill. First buy the full set of uniforms from Supplier X, then you can pay school fees to secure the place. Strictly first come, first served.”

As you read this article, there is a parent or guardian somewhere in Zimbabwe hearing a variation of that statement from some stony-faced public or mission school representative.

Almost invariably, the cost of that uniform is more than 10 times the total cost of tuition fees for one academic year.

The cost of school uniforms is a pain point for the majority of parents in the country.

The problem is so endemic in Africa that some charitable organisations have created programmes to distribute free school uniforms to reduce absenteeism and dropout rates.

There are different views as to whether school uniforms are necessary or not.

It is noteworthy that countries like the United States, where traditionally uniforms were mostly the preserve of private and parochial schools, there is a growing trend to introduce uniforms for public institutions over the past decade.

According to Quartzy, 21,5 percent of US public schools made it mandatory for pupils to wear uniforms at the end of the school year in 2016, 13,8 percent more compared to 2006.

For the purposes of this article I will go with the view that school uniforms are progressive and have more pros than cons.

The World Bank has carried out long term studies on the impact of free uniforms and in its World Development Report 2018 concludes: “School uniforms can help children — especially the poorest children — to continue attending school. But if we want enduring impacts, the schools they attend have to deliver the learning that children deserve.”

For Zimbabwe and, indeed, all Africa, the lesson there is that school uniform costs should be minimal so that we channel more resources towards improving quality education, which is what determines a child’s future.

Thus the question of the day is how the cost of uniforms can be reduced.

Introduction of a generic uniform for all schools

Uniforms are generally expensive, that is if one is comparing standard civilian clothing items to the uniform equivalent.

But generic uniform items like plain white shirts, blue or grey slacks and khaki sets are affordable when one considers that they will be worn for over 180 days each year.

But when it comes to special uniforms that are unique to an institution, the price, if not the quality, increases astoundingly.

For example, a plain short and shirt for an ECD learner costs around $320. But the costs of an institution branded set shoots up to $700.

A generic dress for a secondary school girl is around $299. Institution unique dresses are $700. These are all public schools.

Such a hike in prices can be understood for private schools.

Not that I am saying sending one’s child to a private school is a crime punishable by unjustifiable hefty fines in education costs.

But private schools are optional, and people select institutions whose cultures they identify with and are willing to pay for.

Public education systems are about providing a basic human right.

It does not make sense to make universal access to quality education a challenge for the poor because of uniform cost dis-parities between public institutions.

It, therefore, makes sense for all public institutions to share a standard uniform that can be individualised with low cost things like distinct emblems.

This idea has been suggested in Zimbabwe and other African countries in a bid to bring down the costs of uniforms. But, of course, there are always the same voices who speak loudly and vehemently against the idea, and carry the day.

I will reference Kenya where the proposal has been more recently topical.

In July 2018, Basic Education Principal Secretary Belio Kipsang spoke of a single uniform for all Kenyan pupils at the in-stigation of National Parents Association of that country.

Predictably, there was an immediate outcry by school heads, uniform makers and vendors.

“School uniform colour has a meaning to the school and general community. We should have more engagement on this proposal,” said Kenya Secondary School Heads Association chairman Kahi Indimuli.

“The proposal to adopt a single uniform will open a window for cartels and ruin the textile market,” said Booker Academy principal Mr John Mark Wandera.

It is not a coincidence that the dissenting voices represent the faces of the school uniform cartels across Africa: senior edu-cation administrators and privileged selected uniform manufacturers and distributors.

Zeroing in on Zimbabwe, the collusion between education system administrators and uniform suppliers is well known.

Perhaps the best example on record is the allegation of corruption against former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education Dr Sylvia Utete-Masango over her company being the sole supplier of very expensive uniforms to a Chinhoyi school.

The ministry had to step in and ban public schools from being uniform suppliers after parents complained.

Although in all fairness, in a good number of cases, some school development association committees were directing the mark up on uniforms towards school activities. Ghana and Tanzania have adopted the single uniform approach and it seems to be working for them.

What would this single uniform look like?

The current school uniform styles in Zimbabwe is a seriously outdated relic of the missionary era.

The standard girls wearing dresses and skirts in summer without option is highly sexist, and must be done away with as it does not reflect modern gender dress codes.

The design and colour of current uniforms generally carry no Zimbabwean roots for the learners to find national identity in.

Durability and the local climate are also considerations that must be taken on board in design.

Procurement of the material and production of the uniforms must be open to all comers to al-low healthy competition and to pre-empt the creation of cartels.

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