Shopping: Get kitted out for class

The new school year is here, and for parents that means a whole new games ball, not to mention the Quicksilver backpack, the Gant pencil case and all the latest educational equipment.

The Autumn school term is just beginning, so it's time to find the letter you received from school at the end of last term asking you to make sure your child was equipped with all sorts when they returned in September. Posh preparatory schools have long asked children to arrive with their own scissors and glue sticks, but state schools are fast catching up. Most try to conserve funds by asking parents to supply a pencil case with pencils, pens, crayons, a ruler, a rubber and a pencil sharpener.

Parents may just see this as adding to the bill. American Express has published research on how much parents spend on back-to-school stuff. Clothing only accounts for a little over half, with the remainder being made up by things like school bags and lots of stationery. But parents have more than financial objections. "I don't know why my son has to have his own scissors and glue stick for school," says Diana Monk, whose 7- year-old son attends a preparatory school. "He never gets through a term without losing several glue sticks, and can spend most of an art lesson asking to borrow someone else's." By comparison, our own cut-down washing up bottles, full of scissors, glue sticks or brushes, become a fond recollection.

For children, the stationery race is a chance to mark their place in the class by having the rubber that everyone else wants to borrow. Pencil cases, and their contents, have become the handbags of childhood, in classrooms as far removed from standard issue milk cartons and National Health specs as you and I can imagine.

Choosing what to buy is about balancing the desirable with the practical. Children make no allowances for something that doesn't work, or that falls apart when they've only just bought it. On this basis, rule out pencil tins for younger children: the contents fall out too easily when dropped.

Advertising slogans on cases are unoriginal, and therefore undesirable. For girls, something that is two parts handbag, one part cuddly toy, is perfect. Gant's pencil cases cost pounds 8.95 from Daisy and Tom (shops in London and Manchester 0171 349 0067), would not look out of place under an All Saints arm, and you can play with the rubbery bit on the bottom. Colours are red with black trim or dark navy; no pink, of course.

For boys, pencil cases that do things, or have moving parts, are popular. Hawkin (01986 782536), the mail order catalogue, has a sturdy, double decker wooden pencil box for pounds 5.95. Its layers open out and putting it back together is like fitting a jig-saw.

School bags have just as much credibility hanging on them as pencil cases. Fortunately, this Autumn's bags merge fashion and style with durability and practicality. Concerns about children suffering back problems from carrying heavy loads is probably the reason. Record bags, that have been popular for the last couple of years, have meant children carried heavy loads on one shoulder rather than two. A recent survey by the National Back Pain Association (NBPA) found that children who carried bags on both shoulders had a 7 per cent risk of developing back pain, whereas those who carried them on only one shoulder had a 30 per cent risk. On average, children were carrying 17lb, but some were carrying as much as 3 stone.

As a rule, try to limit your child to carrying no more than 10 per cent of his or her body weight. You can help by choosing a bag with padded shoulder straps and back panel. The NBPA launches an ergonomically designed bag in October. Available from school outfitters and nationwide stores such as John Lewis and Tesco (0181 450 0511 for other stockists), it will cost pounds 19.99, and has special lumbar padding so that, when full, it rests on the child's bottom to help take the strain.

Always go for rainproof nylon fabrics: they outlast leather, corduroy or canvas. And it is worth checking stitching before you buy. The point where the top of the back straps are attached to the bag is a real pressure point. If your child is all fingers and thumbs with zips, try a top-loading, drawstring back pack.

There are plenty of back packs that meet practical criteria and have MTV-cool status too. For bags with loads of zippered pockets, mesh compartments, divider panels, straps for helmets, exterior mesh sleeves, quick-release waist belts, bungee cords, water bottle compartments and padded straps and backs, you won't beat Eastpak's bags. Back packs from Quicksilver (0171 836 6352 for stockists) start at pounds 29.40 with larger satchels, priced pounds 46.40 and pencil cases are new this Autumn, priced pounds 9.90.

Whatever you choose, make sure you keep childrens' enthusiasm for swapping things in mind. You don't want to seem too upset when your son comes home and shows you the friend's secret diary from 1997 that's lost its key that he's swapped for the fountain pen that you just spent a fortune on.

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