Education

The people making a difference: the teacher running a free school uniform exchange on her doorstep | Family

Jo Land was horrified when she realised how much her youngest son’s school uniform was going to cost. “A jumper was £25. A polo shirt was £15,” she says. “This isn’t a fancy school; this is the comprehensive down the road.”

She started thinking about how others managed: “If it was this expensive for us, how on Earth must families with three or four children cope? And that’s not taking into account the cost of living. Food, fuel and energy prices are going up for everyone.” Land, a 53-year-old teacher turned private tutor from Hereford, is not on the breadline. “My husband is a teacher as well,” she says. “We are professionals. If it’s hard for us, it must be harder for other families.”

In December 2021, Land bought a plastic dustbin and put it outside her house, with a sign reading, “School uniform drop-off”. She set up a Facebook group, Herefordshire Free School Uniform, and asked people to drop good-quality used uniforms into the bin. A pair of grey trousers appeared a few days later. “It’s always boys’ grey trousers,” she laughs.

Afternoon tea at the Savoy Hotel in London
Jo’s treat – afternoon tea at the Savoy Hotel in London. Photograph: Courtesy of Jo Land

The operation started to grow almost immediately. “Some weeks I give out up to 48 pieces of uniform,” she says. People drive up and drop the clothing in her bin: she sorts through it, keeps it in her “stock room” (spare bedroom) and posts details about donations on the Facebook group. The first parent to message Land gets the items – for nothing. She puts the items in a named bag and then returns it to the bin on her drive. Recipients can come and collect at their leisure.

“People drive up,” Land says, “get their uniform, and drive on. They don’t need to interact with me.” She drops clothes at the homes of people without cars.

Land has become an unlikely school uniform expert, able to size up most items by eye, although many things still have their labels. Certain items go fast, she says: “If I have a red gingham dress, I can guarantee that in a minute someone will be messaging me. It’s that quick.”

“Being able to access good-quality preloved school uniforms has been a lifeline,” says Kristina Bakewell, a teaching assistant and mother of two. Her 11-year-old daughter is about to start secondary school. Without Land’s service, she’d have been looking at a £400 bill. “That is not money I have,” she says. “It’s amazing, what Jo is doing.”

Though uniforms take up most of her time, Land has also helped children living in social care and women’s refuges, as well as Ukrainian refugees. She estimates that she spends at least an hour a day processing requests and bagging up orders: sometimes, she will respond to 30 Facebook messages in one day.

“Parents say, ‘is it really free?’ I say, ‘absolutely’.” She doesn’t ask people to prove they’re in financial hardship. “If something is in stock,” she says, “they can have it. Because I think everyone is struggling.”

Parents send Facebook messages to express their thanks. “They say, ‘it’s a wonderful thing you’re doing’, and talk about how hard things are at the moment.” Land is horrified by the surging cost of living, and the knock-on effect this has on children. “Every child going to school deserves to feel smart and proud,” she says. “We don’t want children to go to school feeling negative, because that affects their learning.” There is also a beneficial impact on the environment – the project stops good-quality uniforms ending up as landfill.

Land has noticed that people rarely take without also giving: “Sometimes people leave flowers on the bin, or they drop off some outgrown clothes as well, even if it’s just a polo shirt or a few jumpers.” She says she has never received soiled uniform: “Everything is always really clean.”

When asked about her treat, Land tentatively suggests an afternoon tea with her husband Matthew to mark his 50th birthday. The Savoy Hotel in London offers to host the couple for as many cups of tea, cakes and crustless sandwiches as they can manage on a Sunday afternoon, and when we speak after her visit, she’s still on a sugar high: “The service was incredible – they were there before you could even ask.”

Arriving back in Hereford after her five-star feast of strawberry buns and chocolate cake, Land started thinking about all the people in her community who will struggle this winter.

“I came back home,” she says, “and found I had so many messages from people who are absolutely desperate, because they cannot afford uniforms for their children. They don’t know what they’re going to do. They absolutely cannot afford it.” Her determination to ensure children can access the uniforms they deserve grows ever stronger.

Want to nominate someone for Guardian angel? Email us – with their permission – and suggest a treat at guardian.angel@theguardian.com

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