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Obese kids suffer a VAT bellyache

As the UK's biggest schoolwear supplier ups its range, tax on big kids' sizes could be limiting choice

Typical first-day-at-school photos used to feature gap-toothed kids swamped by school uniforms that overly frugal parents had bought for them to "grow into". Today's images are as likely to show children struggling to squeeze into the largest blazer their mums and dads could find for them.

Child sizes are growing to such an extent that the UK's largest school uniform supplier, National Schoolwear Centres, last week unveiled its biggest ever range of off-the-peg sizes, including a blazer with a 52-inch chest.

Government figures show that 16% of boys under the age of 16 in the UK were classed as obese in 2003. This is forecast to rise to 19% in 2010. Figures are more worrying for girls, with the 16% classed as obese in 2003 set to rise to 22% in 2010.

However, rising demand for larger kidswear sizes at National Schoolwear Centres' 60 stores indicates the issue is being overlooked elsewhere.

National Schoolwear Centres managing director Graham Michelli says: "Over the past year we noticed a 25% increase in demand for the special 50-inch and 52-inch blazers we were making, which was enough to persuade us to put them on the production line and make them part of the collection."

He adds that the chain gets a larger slice of the plus-size kidswear markets than most because it will make any unavailable sizes to order. "My experience in talking to customers is that it is harder for large kids to get outfitted. We make a point of always saying yes," he says.

Michelli points out that fat is not the only issue when it comes to changing kids' sizes. "Children are getting bigger, but it's not just about obesity. We had a 14-year-old 6ft 4in rower with a 52-inch chest in one of our stores - he was built like a house. You wouldn't call him fat, and you wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley either," he jokes, adding that he is seeing more well-built as well as overweight children in his stores.

As well as lack of choice, parents of overweight children also face another challenge when dressing them - the adult-sized clothes they are forced to buy come complete with adult-sized VAT. Kidswear is exempt from VAT, but only up to a certain size. The taxman calculates whether clothing is classed as kidswear according to a set of measurements based on the body of an average child on the eve of their 14th birthday (see table). These calculations were last updated in 2001 in agreement with retail trade bodies. But to parents of larger-sized children, these already seem outdated.

Michelli says: "We have a range of sweatshirts that go from a four- to five-year-old to a large adult. At some point it has to have VAT on it, so the price jumps and the mums ask why. If you've got a big lad who is in primary school, he could be wearing a garment that attracts VAT."

This issue has caused consternation in the industry, to the point that trade body the Schoolwear Association, which represents school uniform suppliers and manufacturers, is lobbying for the abolition of VAT on all school-specific kidswear.

Schoolwear Association vice chairwoman Joyce Daly says: "The Office of Fair Trading recently investigated school uniforms and recommended that schoolwear should be affordable and available for all. At the same time the government continues to take VAT on a lot of school product."

She adds that the Schoolwear Association, which has an online petition on the 10 Downing Street website asking for VAT to be abolished on school uniforms, says it is impossible to classify, for example, a plain blue jumper as schoolwear as this could be bought by an adult. However, it argues that classification should be cut and dried for items bearing a school crest or logo.

Of the high street multiples, Bhs is one of the few that stocks plus-size kidswear in its 'Generous Sizing' range, but it warns on its website that 17.5% VAT will apply where applicable.

Neither Marks & Spencer nor Asda have altered their school uniform sizing in the past five years. A spokesman for Asda said: "Larger kids tend to migrate from kids' to adults' clothing much earlier. People have not been knocking on our door asking for bigger sizes."

The VAT issue does not just affect school uniform, but has wider implications for kidswear independents stocking branded kidswear.

Daniel Terminiello is general manager of independent high-end kidswear chain Peppermint. He says the demand for larger-sized children's clothing has been growing over the past eight years. Part of the reason for this, he says, is that brands stick to smaller sizes in order to avoid VAT-related bureaucracy. "On the shop floor, an age 16 size generally fits a 12-year-old," he says. "Year on year we tell our suppliers they need to increase sizes. It is a restrictive choice."

The UK womenswear plus-size market is already well served with specialists such as Evans, Ann Harvey and Yours, plus sub-brands including New Look's Inspire 16+ range. With obese children set to take up about 20% of the £4.5 billion kidswear market, the industry will have to take the potential £900 million market seriously and size up to the taxman.

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