The 50 Best Back To School Buys

From solar-powered backpacks to shark-faced swim caps, Kate Watson-Smyth uncovers the coolest kit for the new term
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The Independent Online


The king of stationery shops now lets you buy online. This season’s attractions include the pink cats Rock and Roll stationery set for girls and a smart black set with instruments for the boys. Buy complete sets including school bags, pens, sharpeners and pencil cases or just mix and match whatever you need. The best thing might be just to set them a budget and see what they come back with.

Where: 0161-839 1500;

How much: from £1.25 for a pencil sharpener

Voltaic Solar Powered Backpack

Yes, it’s phenomenally expensive for a schoolbag but it will last them for years and what teenager wouldn’t want one? Embedded in the back of the bag are three tough, lightweight, solar panels, generating up to fourwatts of power and inside the bag is a battery that stores the energy gathered during the day. You can then use the bag to charge the iPod, mobile phone andwhatever else the savvy teenager needs to carry these days. Oh, and, of course, there’s room for the books as well.

Where: 020-8447 1653;

How much: from £159

Snack Sack

Perfect for the little ones who are just starting school and don’t want to be burdened with a heavy bag, this cute ladybird will hold a sandwich, piece of fruit, drink and a treat. Its lining will keep the food cool and although it only has one strap it can be carried across the body. It also comes with 12 little cards for you to write inspiring messages on, which might be a bit naff but they will like them. Where: 01252 733536; www.beckyandlolo.

How much: £12.49

Stripe Barrel Pencil Case

Good old M&S has jazzed up its stationery range and much of it doesn’t look unlike the distinctive designs of Paperchase. The added advantage is the three-fortwo offer on much of the range – which might be annoying when it comes to food as you buy more strawberries than you can ever eat before they go off – but is handy for stationery as you always need more. Buy a pencil case, set of matching pens and a couple of notepads as well.

Where: 0845 302 1234;;

How much: £3

Zoggs Fun Swim Caps

Not strictly speaking a learning aid, but swimming is on the curriculum these days and it might encourage the reluctant ones into the water, as well as being practical. You can choose the big-toothed shark or the pretty angel fish. Comes in three colours.

Where: 0845 2600 892; www.

How much: £3.49

Save the Planet

Children are very into all things green and even those who don’t need much in the way of their own stationery will like their own stuff to take to school. It will make them feel more grown-up and also give them something to talk about when the subject turns to recycling and green ethics – as it surely will.

Where: 08456 049 049;;

How much: from £4

Kipling Madhouse

Teenage girls tend to recoil in horror if you suggest a backpack, so this is a good place to come for a messenger or more general shoulder bag. This one is big enough for A4 files so should fit the bill and has lots of useful pockets. The main compartment has a zip allowing it to be expanded. Comes in 10 colours, all with the Kipling furry monkey keyring. Even the most trend-conscious teens should be able to find something they approve of from here.

Where: 020-7287 1985;

How much: £58

Dinosaur Lunch Box

Fans of Emma Bridgewater will already know about her cheerful pottery, but she has now turned her hand to kids and produced these fun lunch boxes. I’m never entirely sure if a suitcase design is better than something they can sling over their shoulder or on their back, but, on the other hand, this will stop the banana getting squashed and they may already have a backpack to carry.

Where: 020-7371 5489;

How much: £7

Magic Multiplication Pencil Case

Nifty idea that stores the pencils and comes with a sliding cover that allows you to calculate your times tables up to 12. And it comes with a built-in pencil sharpener. It’s a moot point if you’d be allowed to take it into an exam but it’s a very handy idea. The other point about Yellow Moon is that you can nominate your school or organisation to receive up to 25 per cent of the purchase price, or it will give the money to one of their nominated charities Childline or the Woodland Trust.

Where: 0844 826 8684;;

How much: £4.99

Time Tracker

A good idea if you want them to do reading for 20 minutes or a timed homework task. Some like to see if they can beat the clock, others just like the reassurance of being in control of their own time. You can choose your warning sound between the colours so there’s no excuse for not being clear about how much time is left. And when the homework is done, it’s a handy way of regulating how long they can spend on the Xbox or Nintendo. For some reason, they are less likely to argue with this than repeated shouts of “Turn it off” from parents.

Where: 0870 8745 437;

How much: £24.95

Tape Dispenser

It’s always useful to have a tape dispenser as it saves you scrabbling around for the end. This will probably appeal more to parents with a retro bent as it’s in the form of a tape – geddit – dispenser. It’s made to look like a C90, but does anyone under the age of 30 even know what that is these days? You can tell them it’s a kind of video, although even that is becoming borderline now. Having said that, it’s good and heavy so you can hold the thing to be stuck with one hand and cut the tape with the other.

Where: Selfridges (0800 123 400)

How much: £14.95

Helix DNA Pack

We are always hearing about how we carry too much and are risking our backs and this problem is more acute for children who should never carry more than 10 per cent of their body weight. This bag has a strap that can be carried across the body or on one shoulder but is designed to sit close to the body so the load feels lighter, while the strap is gel-filled to prevent it digging in. The large one in this range is best for A4 files.

Where: 020-7812 9800;

How much: £33.99

Blow-Up Fruit Guard

We’ve all seen that hard plastic banana guard but now there is a variation on the theme. The fruity-faces range is an expandable plastic case into which you can put your fruit – not just bananas, but apples too. When finished you can deflate it so that it takes up less room. It might not be essential but if the novelty factor encourages them to eat more fruit thenwho are we to argue?

Where: 01822 611177;

How much: £3.95


A clear pencil case with three pockets on each side intowhich you can insert the photos or pictures, bits of ribbon and other special stuff, meaning that no two pencil cases are the same. The range also includes a number of bags of all sizes and also a flexible A4 clip file with 12 pockets or a pack of three exercise book covers. For everyone who has ever doodled all over their notepad and would like to customise in a more dedicated fashion.

Where: 020-8744 1806;

How much: £10 for the exercise covers and £12 for the file and pencil case

Maths Shark

A sort of electronic flash card against which children can pit their wits on the basics – subtraction and multiplication as well as fractions and decimals. There are eight skill levels and you can compete against the clock. It’s great for primary-school age kids from about six up and they seem to respond well to the competition element. At the touch of a button it can also work as a normal calculator, albeit a rather large one.

Where: 0870 8745 437;

How much: £32.95

Eco Stapler

According to Waste Online, if everyone in UK offices saved just one staple a day we’d save 72 tonnes of metal a year. Add to that the almost guaranteed certainty that when at home, you’ve always run out of staples just when they need one for their homework, and this gadget seems like a very good idea indeed. Basically, it attaches up to three pages together with some sort of clever cutting-and-folding action so you need never buy staples again.

Where: 0800 288 8970;

How much: £4.99

Large Satchel

Just as teenage girls want something more sophisticated than a backpack so do some of the boys. If they’ve moved on from the nylon football rucksack and fancy something a little trendier, try this bright-yellow satchel. There’ll be no excuse for not spotting this one in a crowd, although you can also get a similar plain back one if they prefer.

Where: Topman (0845 121 4519) for stockists

How much: £170


Another successful contender on Dragons’ Den, this lunch box does rather more than just carry your lunch. The spot on the underside changes from dark blue to light as the food inside warms up. If it goes white then the food inside is likely to spoil. In addition to that, the clever shape allows you to carry two pieces of round fruit – either whole or cut into pieces and stored in the pots provided while the curved shape at the top is for putting a banana, which makes it all look like a smiley face.

Where: 020-7012 1715;

How much: £10 for both

Ally Capellino

For putative label hunters, this understated pencil case has been specially created for the Tate and is perfectly plain and utilitarian. Perfect for those teenagers who have grown out of the ubiquitous branding and when they’re bored with it, their mothers can nick it back for their make-up.

Where: 020-7887 8869;

How much: £10.50

Water-Powered Calculator

I know the lack of sun doesn’t really affect a solar-powered product, but why not try a different eco approach and go for this water one instead. Simply fill the battery with water that powers the calculator for two or three months until the water evaporates, then refill and off you go again. It will last for around two years and can be left to dry out and then stored indefinitely so no need for conventional batteries again.

Where: 020-7942 5000;

How much: £7.50

Recycled Notepads

Our kids are much greener than us these days and buying them back-to-school kit from Nigel’s Eco Store is bound to appeal to both them and us. There’s the usual range of notepads made from old tyres and juice cartons as well as pens from games consoles and recycled pencils. But this site isn’t just about stationery, there’s a vast range of other green products for all around the house.

Where: 0800 288 8970;

How much: from £1.35


Back to Dragons’ Den for this rather clever idea. An expandable school bag that hooks neatly over the back of the chair and has an extra bit that flaps out to make the seat more comfortable. No, it’s not essential, but it’s a clever idea and also means that they don’t have to have their bags cluttering up the aisles between desks for the teacher to trip over. It’s well made and sturdy and has extra storage pockets inside.

Where: 020-7012 1715

Thermos Funtainer

Even the most unadventurously minded child can get bored with taking sandwiches to school every day – not to mention their parents. This tubby little flask is brilliant for keeping soups and pasta warm and allows you to vary their lunches. It comes in two sizes and will keep food hot for six hours and cool for 10. Comes in blue, pink or purple. This site also sells a Thermos snack jar with a folding spoon in the lid, which is perfect for keeping yogurt cool.

Where: 01822 611177; uk

How much: £13.99 for the funtainer and £4.75 for the snack jar

Combat Pencil Case

Woolworths is probably the first stop for many people trying to find good-value backto- school kit, and, let’s face it, you might not like the branding on everything but they sure do. There’s a good range of pencil cases. A couple of other things worth flagging up are the two-pack kit bags – a large one for the kit and a smaller one for the football boots, ballet shoes and theWorthit! bag, bottle and swim bag in either blue/football or pink/flower.


How much: pencil cases from £1.99, two-pack kit bag £3, Worthit! set £3.97

Eyewitness Guides

There are dozens of books in this Dorling Kindersley series covering subjects such as Ancient Egypt, Shakespeare and climate change. It’s the 20th anniversary of the books this year, and they have been repackaged to include a CD (Mac and PC compatible) full of projects and fun things to make and a giant glossy poster. As you would expect from DK, it’s all brightly coloured with lots of graphics and bite-sized chunks of information.

Where: 0870 607 7600;

How much: £7.99

Back-to-School Junior Left-Handed Kit

There’s an argument that says left-handers just have to adapt to the world around them so there’s no point creating special stuff, but speaking as onemyself, there are certain things that help if they are made for us. Scissors are one, and fountain pens, which can be very scratchy if not built to cater for us. This kit also has a backwards ruler, which may just be confusing for everyone, and a specially adapted pencil sharpener.

Where: 020-8770 3722;

How much: £19.85

TLC Oxford

These bags have been developed to counteract back discomfort by distributing the weight evenly, thus protecting the neck from strain, balancing the load and encouraging good posture. There is plenty of room for lunch bags, books and water bottles too. They are lightweight, the pockets are outlined in reflective material and they are built to last for years.

Where: 01753 655161;

How much: £47.99 for the small and £49.99 for the large

Laptop Lunch Box

A rather neat idea this one. It’s basically a bento box with lots of little containers, some with lids that will stop things from being squashed or muddled up.Perfect for little pots of nuts and fruit and the hard lid means that you can also put in a salad. If you buy the whole kit, you also get a cooling gel pack, a case to keep it all cool and a recipe book with ideas for said lunches. Comes with a spoon and fork and either carrying strap case for younger ones or a bag that can fit in a school/handbag.

Where:; 01252 733536

How much: £19.99

Sparrow Kids Rocket Pencil Case

This one will give you something to occupy the children on the inevitable rainy day in the summer holiday and also provide them with their very own home-made pencil case to take back to school on the first day of term. The kit comes with pre-punched holes, a safety needle and easy-to-follow instructions. The site also includes bags and purses for those who don’t want rockets.

Where: 020-8537 3738;

How much: £14.99

Five-Minute Learning Pads

Trying to get kids to do homework is, well, trying basically. For the six-to-eight-year olds, these five-minute learning pads are a good idea. First of all, no-one can complain about five minutes and, secondly, they do seem to like the timed-competition element. There are three pads in a set – spelling, maths and science – with 32 tests in each one. Simple, quick, educational. Homework. Done.

Where:; 0844 826 8684

How much: £5.99

Recycled Stationery Set

Choose from three colours – blue, pink or natural for this complete set including a pencil case made from tyres, two notepads (A4 and A5) from juice cartons, pens from car parts, pencils from packaging and a ruler from recycled polystyrene. If you put it like that, why would you buy anything else?

Where: 020-7272 7233;

How much: £17.99

Recycled Laptop Bag

Made from about 12 half-litre plastic bottles, this saves enough energy to power your laptop for about 150 hours so you can offset your carbon footprint at the same time. It opens up so you can use the computer while still in the case. It’s properly padded and comes with a carrying handle and shoulder strap.

Where 0845 3677 001;

How much: £29.95

Plain Plastic Lunch Box

For parents who despair of being bombarded by branded goods, comes this lightweight plain lunch box in a variety of colours. You can either leave it like this or decorate it yourself with stickers and enamel paint. The company also has a rather cool aluminium one that would be good for the older ones as it doesn’t have a handle but will still fit inside a school bag.

Where: 01822 611177;;

How much: £4.75 for the plain plastic; £22.99 for the Siggs Aluminium

Luxury Pencil Case

The trouble with Amazon is that it’s so big, so it can be hard to find the interesting stuff. But this rather cute Mickey Mouse pencil case has a retro design that makes it cool, rather than Disney garish. And there’s bound to be something else good if you trawl about for long enough.


How much: £5.99

Best Websites for Homework

Sooner or later, your child will enter the scaryworld of regular homework. This often has the effect of reducing the parents to tatters, never mind the children, so try this book,which is perfect for Key Stage 3 – ages 11 to 14 – to find recommendations to help with all subjects and hopefully give them an incentive.


How much: £3.79

Waterman Audace

Yes, it’s quite pricey for a pen, but a good present for a girl who has just passed some exams, perhaps. Or for the messy writer who needs some encouragement. And it looks a bit like a mascara so that might add to the appeal.

Where: Selfridges (0800 123 400)

How much: £32

Named Kit Bag

The younger ones might not even need a book bag, but they will all need the wherewithal to carry PE kit, ballet stuff and football boots. Letterbox has a wide range in different fabrics and, as we know by now, they offer a personalisation service, which means that you don’t have to scrabble around with nametapes. Choose a different material for each child and when they grab them on the way out they won’t get the wrong one.

Where: 0844 888 5000;

How much: £14.99

Grab Bag

Sometimes you just don’t want to be lugging a heavy lunch bag about in addition to a school bag, PE kit and whatever else children need to be able to spend six hours away from home these days. These funky grab bags have an insulated PVC lining and a wipe-clean exterior and will hold a perfectly respectable size lunch and fold down flat for storing in the book bag afterwards. Cheap too.

Where: 0844 573 6006;

How much: £6.99

Personalised Extra-Long Jumbo

Packed full of every conceivable type of pen and pencil and rubber, this zipped case comes in five colours, it’s extra long so they can keep the ruler in it as well, and they can have their name printed on to the case and onto every single pen inside. Children love to see their name in print and it will stop the complaints about so-and-so “nicked my pencil, Miss”.

Where: 0844 888 5000;

How much: £14.99

Pick Me Up Put Me Down

Described as the most random encyclopedia with “stuff you need to know”, this isn’t just a big book full of facts but is more like following the links on a computer game. Instead of following from A-Z, you can just see where this leads you. So you can discover how smelly feet are connected to nuclear weapons and whether Beethoven was a punk.

Where: 08456 049 049;

How much: £19.99

Moleskine 18-Month Academic Diary

Diaries that start at the beginning of the school year are just so much more sensible, but this one lasts an additional 18 months after that, so as long as you don’t lose it you are sorted for ages. This is a great idea for students with regular homework as there is a week on one side and a lined page on the other for jotting down notes and ideas. I have been researching diaries for years and this is my favourite. Comes in either A4 or A5 sizes.


How much: £5.99

Junior Flo Backpack

Most of us find the idea of sewing, or even ironing on name tags a job for which life is too short. Take advantage of the Letterbox personalisation service and have everything embroidered with Junior’s name. There’s not really any need to use this for their pencils (although the younger ones will like that) but for kit bags, pencil cases and school bags, it’s definitely worth doing.

Where: 0844 888 5000;

How much: £7.99

Juice-Carton Holders

Perfect for the younger ones who might have a carton of juice in their lunch box and end up squeezing most of it all over themselves – or worse, the teacher. At £5 for two, they have two large handles and prevent all sorts of squeezage and squidging action.

Where: 0844 848 6000;;

How much: £5

Boys Rule Pencil Case

It doesn’t matter how much you try and fight the hardwired stereotyping, they do nearly always conform, so this pencil case will keep them happy until they are teenagers, at which point you will have to find one that says “parents keep out”.

Where: 01482 440284;

How much: £3.99

100 Things You Should Know About

Miles Kelly Publishing’s titles, for children between the ages of seven and 12, include appealing reference books, such as the human-body poster book, where you can peel back transparent layers of paper to see the layers of the skin, or the dinosaur one that comes with a model to make. Or the series of 100 Things You Should Know About... almost anything you can imagine.


How much: £17.99 for the poster books and £4.99 for the 100 Things

4 Subject Notebook

Half the battle with homework is being organised about where the notes are and what exactly needs doing. Paperchase has come up with this notebook that divides into four subjects so they aren’t randomly jotting down details of maths homework in their geography book because that’s all they’ve got to hand. Well, you can only try and put a system in place, it’s not a guarantee that it will work, mind you. Comes in pink, red and blue.


How much: £6.50

Large Book Bag

We know how picky teenage girls can be and basically if it looks like a school bag or something that might conceivably be used to carry books, then they don’t want it. This Cath Kidston bag is made from oilcloth so it’s hardwearing, pretty and, whisper it, useful too.

Where: 08450 262 440;

How much: £16

Madison 0.41 Food Flask

Older children, who are hopefully a bit less fussy about food with sauce, might well prefer a hot lunch in the winter and these flasks, which come with a spoon, will keep pasta and soup warm for six hours. And, as a working parent, who wouldn’t want to alleviate the working guilt about your poor little mites not getting a hot meal at lunchtime?

Where: 01246 571279;

How much: £9.99

Multi-Pocket Pencil Case

Does what it says, really. A neat black case with coloured trim that divides into three pockets so you can organise it how you want between pencils, pens, make-up brushes and bits of string that the well-organised (or not) student needs to carry around.

Where: 01270 505 888;

How much: £3.99

Fraction Tower Cubes

Oh, who can’t remember the hell of fractions at school? This won’t necessarily teach you how to do quadratic equations (or perhaps it will, who knows?) but it will help with the basics of understanding them. They click together in any combination to help them work out both simple and advanced sums. Perfect for Key Stage 2, or confused parents trying to help with homework.

Where: 0844 888 5000;

How much: £9.99

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