For independent schools, the need to present themselves as institutions that are both traditional and modern has always been something of a balancing act. But in today’s marketplace, what key issues do independent schools need to be aware of when it comes to updating their school uniform, and how are things changing?
For a lot of independent schools, updating their uniform is a key way to tie in with the rebranding of their entire marketing activity. This is something that Clare Burrows, Account Director at uniform supplier Schoolblazer, has seen through her work with Croydon High School, which recently refreshed its logo with the introduction of a striking lime colour.
Commenting further, Clare said: “They wanted this colour taken through into their uniform too. This is quite typical of what we are seeing in terms of independent schools refreshing their uniform with new branding and new colours.”
In addition, Clare has also seen a common theme develop for girls’ schools, in terms of not just putting the school’s crest on their blazers as a way to identify their uniform. She added: “In fact we’re seeing more subtle elements like a contrast trim being introduced instead, showing that uniform doesn’t need to be overtly branded in order to work.”
John Stevenson is Joint Managing Director at Stevensons, which was established in 1925. They supply uniform to over 500 schools across the UK, and have seen a big shift towards independent schools investing in sportswear over the last three years. Commenting further, John said: “Whilst sportswear has always been a key consideration for independent schools when choosing outfitters, this area continues to develop at a rapid pace.
“Independent schools have a need for modern technical kit that they can be proud to compete and perform in, whilst being mindful of cost and availability to parents all year round. As designs and the requirements of kit are ever-changing – we have indeed undertaken a record number of sportswear redesigns this year – it is not uncommon for schools to look to develop their range every three years or so and so retailers need to be proactive and competitive with their kit offering.”
Burgess Hill Girls
When it comes to an independent school looking to update its school uniform, it’s important that they seek the thoughts of their key stakeholders, such as pupils, parents, staff and governors before making a decision. The most effective way to do this is through a focus group, but it’s vital that the senior leadership team has a good idea of how they’d like the uniform to look before they start the process so that a consensus of opinion can be achieved.
As Clare Burrows explains: “For focus groups, we prefer to give attendees a limited number of options for each item, based on what the preference of senior management is. Less is definitely more and it’s about making them feel engaged, rather than delegating the whole process to them.”
At Stevensons, they believe it’s important for independent schools to offer parents a range of purchasing options, rather than just relying on online stores. They have seen a change in the shopping environment over the last few years, and have seen an increase in parents wanting to get professional advice about products through face-to-face interactions with staff, rather than just using the internet. As John Stevenson explains: “We have 14 high-street locations across the country, as for independent schools we know that although parents like ordering online, they also like visiting us in store.
“The reason for this is that they want to have interactions with staff in order to understand what uniform is compulsory and what’s optional, as well as to find out more about tailoring options too.”
Manchester High School for Girls
Manchester High School for Girls is a leading independent school for girls aged 4–18. The school had a long-standing association with black and gold throughout their kit, however, this had no special relevance to the school’s rich history. After a detailed consultation, the school worked with Stevensons to redevelop their uniform and sportswear and highlight their heritage.
Speaking about the rebrand, John Stevenson said: “As the school has a strong link with the Suffragette movement, a detailed design process was undertaken and the colours from the Suffragette movement can now be seen represented throughout the school’s very distinctive uniform and sportswear kit.
“After much consultation through focus groups, presentations and design meetings, contemporary designs were identified.
As a result, a whole new range of uniform and sportswear is now available through Stevensons’ various retail channels and will be worn by all pupils from reception through to Year 10 this September.”
Manchester High School for Girls
Edge Grove School
Edge Grove School is a day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 3–13 years old in Hertfordshire. When the school was established in 1935, the school’s uniform was only available for parents to purchase at Harrods and then John Lewis. However, as time has gone on, the school has realised the importance of choosing an accessible supplier so that the process of purchasing uniform is made much easier.
Speaking of how things have changed, Headmaster Ben Evans said: “I believe that it’s really important for independent schools to understand how parents buy uniform and make it as easy for them as possible by taking away any stress. For us at Edge Grove School, this means that parents should be able to go online or buy from local shops, and we even have our own second-hand uniform shop at the school too.”
Pupils at the school have always worn distinctive maroon blazers and red woollen jumpers, which is a tradition that they want to retain. In addition, the comfort of pupils is also the most important factor when it comes to considering new items of uniform. Commenting further, Ben said: “There is only one machine left in the whole country that will produce our red woollen jumpers, and despite our supplier asking if we wanted to change it to polyester V-neck instead, this item is specific to us and part of our identity.
“For us, it’s about getting the balance between a uniform that is smart and serviceable and is also easy to maintain – but ultimately the comfort of the pupil is always what is most important.”
Edge Grove School
Burgess Hill Girls
Liz Laybourn is Head of Burgess Hill Girls, an independent school for girls in Sussex that was founded in 1906. When the school opened, it only had nine pupils and so a uniform wasn’t needed. However, in 1914 a square-necked, navy blue gymslip, made by a local lady, was introduced. Following this, a school blazer was introduced in 1922, a grey kilt with a blue blouse, blue jumper plus a dress was rolled-out in 1985 and the kilt then changed colour to navy in early 2000.
In 2016, the previous Head of Burgess Hill Girls undertook a rebrand, which involved the school’s uniform being modernised. As part of this, it was important for the school to keep an element of tradition, as well as ensure that their uniform was different to that of other local schools.
Speaking of the reaction to the rebrand and their future plans, Liz Laybourn said: “We were lucky that the choice went down well with the majority of parents and girls. Our aim was to minimise the number of garments required by ensuring there was an option to change only a couple of items when transitioning to Senior School from Junior School.
“The Sixth Form Suit was a completely new item as the girls wore their own clothes. It was also well received and many of the students welcomed the suit.
“In the foreseeable future I do not envisage a huge change as the current uniform is well-liked. However, there are a few items I would like to revisit. It is always important to keep the review in mind and move with the times whilst considering the costs to parents.”
Lady Eleanor Holles
Lady Eleanor Holles (LEH) launched a new school uniform (above) for its Senior School in 2017 and tried to balance finding a smart uniform that the girls would enjoy wearing with one that was practical and not expensive. They canvassed the opinions of students, parents and staff to ensure that their chosen style would be met with approval and, commenting further, Jenny Blaiklock, Director of Development and Communications, said: “When Mrs Hanbury arrived at the school nearly four years ago, one of the comments most often made to her was that the girls looked scruffy and that the school uniform was rather dull and outdated.
“With the help of our focus groups, we reached an agreement on a smart, practical and stylish new uniform. Gone are the boring grey sweatshirts and in has come the new up-to-date uniform which is reflective of the school’s heritage.”