Make autumn a doddle

Equipping your children for school is exhausting and expensive. But it needn't be so bad, says Caitlin Davies
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The Independent Online

School clothes

Get school uniform and/or new clothes as soon as possible. Some schools demand that you buy their own items rather than off-the-peg clothes from the high street, but if it's just a white shirt or a black skirt you're after then shop around and take advantage of the mid-summer sales. Lou, the parent of two boys, has already bought clothes in bulk and says, "I just hope they don't grow too much in the coming weeks."

Government guidelines are supposed to ensure that school clothes are not too costly, but they can still be a financial burden. Tom, a head of Year 7, says it is important for children starting secondary school to have a new uniform, however. "It represents a chance of a fresh start. New clothes help to reinforce this."

Stores like Debenhams, John Lewis and Marks & Spencer have a range of hi-tech school clothes that are Teflon-coated, apparently making them longer lasting and easy to wash. Places like Woolworths also stock "non-iron" and "easy-iron" school clothes.

Some schools run second-hand stores where parents sell on clothes their children have outgrown. Whatever you choose, make sure you label everything.

Shoes

While the uniform may be straightforward, what about shoes? "There's a growth spurt during the summer and they need shoes to last them through the winter," says Jenny, a mother of one. "But get in and out of the shop as quickly as possible. Go two weeks before school starts, or, better still, buy them on holiday."

A school may want shoes to be"black and plain", but try telling that to your 13-year-old daughter who wants heels. Fights over shoes remain embedded in many parents' memories. One mother says she sat in a shoe shop for an hour, only to have her daughter throw a tantrum with the shop assistant. They were asked to leave.

"Have you ever been to John Lewis the week before school starts?" asks Colin, a father of three. "I made the mistake of going at the last minute and I won't do that again." His eight-year-old son wanted a particular pair of trainers because "he wants to be like a rapper, he already knows what's cool and what's uncool."

Peer pressure

This can be an awesome phenomenon."It really kicks in after the first year at secondary," says one mother. "My daughter wants the latest thongs and bras. I'm buying her things I wouldn't buy for myself which is lovely but I'm buying her things I wouldn't even buy for myself." When it comes to shoes, trainers or school bags, children want ones that will make them fit in. There are important issues of identity here: children want to belong to the tribe, and the appearance of the tribe is always changing. But try to resist the pressure. See why it is important to them, but set a limit on what you are willing to spend. Kitting out a secondary-school student with uniform and supplies can cost about £300. When it comes to jewellery and hairstyle, check the school rules.Generally schools guard against what they call "extremes of fashion", which may mean no jewellery at all. Others will allow plain earring studs - but for girls only

Sports kit

Primary children don't need much sports gear. Many parents recall buying plimsolls only to find that their children ended up doing PE in bare feet. All you really need are shorts and a T-shirt. For secondary children, buy what's needed, not necessarily what's in fashion. If they want a £100 pair of trainers, offer them £50 and they can earn the rest. John Lewis sells sports outfits treated with a "revolutionary anti-microbial technique" to ensure they don't become too smelly.

Stationery

There are plenty of back to school "essentials" but how essential are they?One mother of teenagers says her brood appeared to go through the whole of secondary school with one giant folder. Yet every year there were long negotiations about new folders they'd set their hearts on. Make a list and a budget and stick to it.

Pens and pencil-cases are there to be used, not to look good or smell nice. Starting now, collect every free pencil and pen you can lay your hands on - often they come through the letter box as part of a charity appeal.

Go for a washable, fabric pencil case (some teachers ban metal ones because of the noise they make when they fall on the floor), a good-quality unbreakable ruler, and a rubber that will actually do the job. Secondary school students may also need a basic calculator, a geometry set, a pocket dictionary, a diary and other books, so check what the school requires. Either way, children are going to need a lot of paper.

Consider buying paper in bulk or teaming up with other parents to do this. Street markets often sell paper and binders more cheaply than shops, and there are plenty of on-line options too.

Lunch boxes

You may want your child to eat a healthy packed lunch but, according to the Food Standards Agency, three out of four lunch boxes don't meet government nutritional standards. Read the labels on what you buy, noting sugar and salt content, as well as additives. If your child pressures you to have crisps and chocolate, contact other parents and ask for the school to formulate a policy on what's allowed in the lunch box.

Buying a lunch box for primary children can be fraught, depending on which cartoon character is the favourite of the moment. Get a box that is fully washable: the ones made of fabric are the easiest to clean. Ideally, the lunch box should have a thermal section for keeping fruit and yoghurt cool. Invest in Tupperware that is reusable and fun for children to open.

And buy a separate, sturdy water/juice container. "In the first year of primary school my daughter went through five water bottles," complains one mum. "They cracked and then leaked so that everything else became soggy. I've been through every fashion, every trend and every type. This year I'm buying a proper camping bottle."

School bags

For primary aged children, you can get away with something bright, cheerful and washable - the sort of book bag many schools sell. If they need a bag for sports gear, you probably know someone who has received a free travel bag on a plane that will fit the bill. But many secondary students have to lug their equipment round all day because they don't have a locker (or they don't have time to get to it), so they need something sturdy. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy recommends a backpack with two padded straps so the weight is distributed evenly over the shoulders, and doesn't strain the back. School bags with foldaway inline skating wheels may sound fun, but can be difficult getting down a school corridor.

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