To the untrained eye, one deer looks the same as another. However, to a deer, the tiny variations in markings and antlers are vital indicators of health, status and success. "Looking right" is the difference between deer success and failure, between social life and death.
As with wild animals, so with schoolchildren. To outsiders, they might look like a homogeneous mass of shirts, ties and shoes. But to each other, the tiny differences are crucial. Having the "right" school kit can be the difference between social success and failure. Which can make the annual purchasing of this kit something of a nightmare.
There is such a lot of it, too. The back-to-school shopping list doesn't end with a shirt and tie. There are shoes, pencil cases, calculators, games kit, computers... the list goes on.
Do you really need to buy everything? Can you buy the cheapest things?
Well, the answers to those questions are "Yes" and "Sometimes". Yes, you must buy everything. "Teachers do appreciate that parents don't have money to throw about," says Ellie, a teacher in a north London secondary school. "Schools don't put things on those lists for their amusement."
But no, you needn't buy the most expensive things. The things you need can be divided into three categories: those you need but can skimp on; those you need but absolutely cannot skimp on; and those you don't really need, but might like your child to have.
Into the first category, you can place stationery. There is, you may be alarmed to hear, "designer stationery". Last year, one of the best-selling lines in WHSmith was the Playboy Bunny line. Young Isobel may whineif you refuse her Hugh Hefner, but you may feel justified in standing firm. And not just for feminist reasons.
First, fashions in stationery are more ephemeral than fashions elsewhere. Second, if stationery fashions are ephemeral, stationery itself is even more so. Any child who finishes the week with two-thirds of the pencil case intact is doing well. Finally, the quality of "designer" stationery is no higher. "All our stationery goes through the same quality controls - they are all as good as each other," says a spokesperson for WHSmith.
Into this category you can also place the uniform itself. Most British schools now have school uniform, as its power in helping to combat bullying is now recognised. "Not having the right designer gear used to cause problems," says Liz Carnell, who set up Bullying Online, a website to help pupils and parents overcome bullying. "Now almost everywhere has school uniform, and it's very rare we hear of problems of that sort."
And given that uniform is - er - uniform, it doesn't really matter where you buy it, so you can save here.
Into the next category - essential, no skimping - go things like calculators. They may all seem the same to you, but that is not howteachers see it. "If your school says you have to have a certain sort of calculator, they mean it," says Anne, the head of maths at a comprehensive in Reading.
Also in this category are school shoes, the key social marker for schoolchildren - the antlers of Year 7, if you like. If your child declares "any shoes except these ones", they might be on to something. Here, and here only, if your child has a particular (even slightly costly) whim, it may be worth indulging them.
Into the final category - unnecessary but nice - go computers. Parents often worry that if their child doesn't have a computer at home, they will be at a disadvantage. But this really isn't the case. Almost every school offers pupils enough lessons in, and access to computers to be competent by the time they leave.
So, while the hunting and gathering of school kit might seem a dauntingly expensive process, it needn't be. And remember; however carefully you buy and prepare these precious new possessions, many will have been confiscated, lost or broken by the end of term - and the whole process begins again. A happy thought.