Back to School: Fierce high street competition cuts costs of outfitting - Buying second-hand need not mean second-best. Elaine Williams looks at the options

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THE MAJORITY of parents may favour school uniform, but they are also hard-nosed when it comes to keeping costs down.

When traditional outfitters ruled the roost, the thrifty and poor would turn their children out in home-sewn and home-knitted clothes. But few of today's pupils have to suffer the humiliation of chunky woollies and hand-made skirts and trousers.

Parents are turning instead to high-street shops, supermarkets and bargain basements for basic items that are durable, machine washable and cheap; resorting to the outfitters for school-specific items such as ties, badges and blazers.

The market is extremely competitive. Stores such as Littlewoods and even some traditional outfitters have held prices this year. British Homes Stores has increased its range of school colours from grey and navy to red and green and is to open School Shops to cater for growing numbers of cost-cutters. A near-to-complete uniform, right down to lunchbox, games shoes and satchel can be acquired for under pounds 100, compared to the average cost of pounds 200 for a traditional set of school clothes. The cost of scarves and caps alone in this latter category can amount to pounds 20.

The Asda 'George' range is widening its school choice and, it hopes, its clientele, by providing a more upmarket effect at reasonable prices. An all-cotton shirt costs pounds 7.99, the cost of a pack of two Poly-cotton shirts. Grey school trousers with turn-ups, fob pocket and satin waistband cost pounds 12.99, instead of pounds 9.99 for a conventional style.

However, there will always be parents who prefer the better fit and quality of material that many traditional outfitters provide. Frank Harrison of Pudsey, Leeds, suppliers to many local independent schools, has been coping with lengthy queues. Some parents are prepared to pay the pounds 70 to pounds 80 for a woollen blazer that makes a good hand-me-down. If you have more than one child at the same school, the initial outlay is worthwhile.

Susanne Gair of York, who has three children at independent schools, has survived on the thriving nearly-new market that many schools provide. For a good second-hand woollen blazer she pays between pounds 20 and pounds 30.

When her daughter Kate started at a new school last year, she paid pounds 100 for a cloak to last Kate through her school career, but bought a school suit second- hand. 'I asked the school if they had a provision for nearly-new and they were only too happy to help,' said Mrs Gair. 'When every penny you've got is going on school fees, then there has to be some way round the expense of uniform. Lots of parents buy second-hand. There's no stigma attached.'

Most schools, independent and state sector alike, are conscious of keeping the uniform simple and flexible and costs reasonable. When you add the cost of a games kit - shirts, skirts, shorts, knickers and shoes - plus stationery and bags, the requirements can seem overwhelming, even at budget prices. Most schools would now expect parents to mix traditional outfitters with high-street stores.

Dame Allan's Girls' and Boys' School, an independent day school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, requires blazers which must be bought from John Lewis, the school's specified outfitters. But the purchase of grey trousers, navy skirts, and black shoes is left to parents' discretion. The school requires pupils to have lab coats, tennis rackets and hockey sticks, and boys need rugby shirts in school colours - but the basic white and blue games kit is simple and can be acquired anywhere.

Harraby School in Carlisle, a comprehensive which re-introduced uniform five years ago at parents' request, has kept requirements as basic as possible. A black jumper or cardigan - no blazer - a blue and white striped tie, a white or grey shirt, grey skirt and trousers and black shoes with a similarly basic games kit, means parents can shop around and keeps costs to a minimum.

'Parents like it,' said Graham Neat, the deputy head, 'because it's cheaper than not having a uniform and it cuts out arguments about what to wear. A simple uniform is also easily enforceable and we are strict on enforcement.'

Yvonne Bird, who has three teenage sons attending state secondary school in Newbury, Berkshire, agrees that having uniform is cheaper than no uniform. She tends to buy shirts from mail order catalogues: 'It saves dragging the boys around town when they are tired out from school.' The required black or charcoal trousers she buys whenever she spots a bargain. She estimates that with careful shopping, she can buy the entire uniform for about pounds 120.

The one item she is prepared to spend the full amount on is the regulation blazer, which is worn every day and needs to be hard-wearing.

'I did once pick up a couple secondhand. When I got them home, I realised one was a girl's blazer. I changed the buttons around, but needless to say, my son refused to wear it.'