What's cool in school in 2004?

The summer holidays may have only just started, but savvy parents are already drawing up their shopping lists for the autumn term. Hester Lacey looks at essential purchases in the weeks ahead
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The Independent Online

September's back-to-school ritual is as potent as ever, for parents and pupils alike. Department stores up and down the land resound to passionate negotiations over heel height and skirt length, trainer labels and sports-bag style. "After such a long break, this is a significant transition back to formal education," says Karen Johnson, executive editor at BBC Education and mother of William, aged nine. "There are more demands on parents than ever, and gathering all the paraphernalia can become a hassle if you let it. You see everybody buying their school shoes at the same time and wishing they'd done it the week before, so don't leave everything till the last minute."

Uniform

One of the biggest expenses, and often highly prescriptive. Many schools still issue exhaustive lists and insist on particular suppliers or even sell uniform items themselves, which makes second-hand uniform sales very popular.

Boaters and blazers still have nostalgia value, but, says John Coe of the National Association for Primary Education, parents today tend to favour a more relaxed approach to uniform. "They recognise that uniform is important for school identity, but they prefer alternatives such as sweatshirts in school colours, with perhaps a grey skirt or trousers, which they can buy anywhere," he says. "And trousers for girls are seen as very practical."

Increasing numbers of schools are moving towards the sweatshirt/rugby shirt option, to the relief of many parents. Karen Johnson claims that she has never ironed a school uniform. "Many more schools are allowing practical clothes that you can throw in the wash, and parents are grateful for that. It's important that school uniform is as hassle-free and cheap as possible.

"I'm very much in favour of uniform. It helps children not to be competitive, which is more important than ever as there's so much competition outside school. And it's generally far more appropriate for a working environment than short skirts and crop tops."

Not everyone loves uniform, however. "I waste so much time making sure the boys have their ties tied and their shirts tucked in," groans one secondary teacher. "I wish we could move towards the Continental way, where pupils come in wearing their own clothes and put on an overall for the school day."

Shoes

Footwear remains a perennial battleground. "The uniform in our school is black leather shoes, but getting the pupils out of their trainers leads to constant arguments," laments Pat Porter, English teacher and special educational needs co-ordinator at Salesian College in Battersea.

Trainers are a bone of contention. "Parents aren't keen on them," says John Coe. "The main reason is that even young children are very demanding and competitive over the latest labels and models, which are very expensive. There's so much pressure on parents that they tend to prefer a no-trainers rule."

Regulation leather shoes are often expensive, says Karen Johnson, but nevertheless, she approves. "I don't think it's healthy wearing trainers all day, every day and schools need to be strict. And the designer label issue is at its height with trainers. Even for games, they should be basic and simple."

Stationery

There's a chance here for individuality. But don't overdo the quantity you buy. Year 7s in particular tend to start the new school year with an elaborate range of stationery kit, says Pat Porter. "Everyone comes in September with everything they need, but by October, most of it has gone missing. My advice is to keep it cheap and cheerful, a couple of pens, a couple of pencils, a ruler and a rubber, and a pocket dictionary."

That still equates to an awful lot of Biros. Over the summer, the office supplier Staples expects to sell over two million pens, 700,000 pencils, 17 miles of ruler, 150,000 rubbers and 250,000 gel pens. And a plain ballpoint just doesn't hack it in the classroom. A new survey from Staples shows that 75 per cent of children choose their stationery depending on how funky it appears.

Style and practicality can combine, however. The software publisher Europress has come up with new-style triple tuition DVD sets for all three key stages that include a calculator - and a smartly styled water bottle. "When we're thirsty, mental performance deteriorates, and carbonated drinks lead to lack of focus," says a Europress spokeswoman.

"There are quite strict regulations at my son's school," says Karen Johnson. "Crazes on certain types of felt tips and gel pens tend to get quashed, quite wisely. The children have to write with pencil to begin with, and it's a proud moment when they move up to a pen - we have to get one particular model from WH Smith."

Fun kit

Leave valuables at home, advises Pat Porter - including mobile phones. "The temptation is to show off, but every year, around 100 mobiles go missing." This doesn't, however, mean that there isn't scope for jazzing up the back-to-school experience with some fun kit: school bags, lunch boxes, pencil cases, collectibles to trade. Younger children in particular will be going Shrek-crazy over the summer; but the old favourites are evergreen.

"My five-year-old son loves his Postman Pat lunch box," says Pat Porter. "He's very proud of it. The older boys go for Nike and Adidas drawstring bags, but we have an official school bag so we have to confiscate them. There's a big currency in Euro 2004 medals and Japanese trading cards."

The Euro 2004 collectible medals are still hard currency in many playgrounds, as are Beyblades.

"Yo-yos swept through our school recently," reports Karen Johnson. "And why not? It was clackers when I was at school and we all had bruises up our arms!"

And in one London secondary school, a more entrepreneurial spirit has raised its head. "The children drop into Sainsbury's on their way in and buy a multipack of crisps or a bag of doughnuts," says a teacher. "At breaktime, they resell them to the others, at a profit. That's strictly against the rules, so we confiscate any contraband - which means we often get doughnuts on our coffee breaks."

Exam retakes

Don't panic. If your grades aren't what you wanted, resits may be the best course. And, says Richard Leathes, director of Gabbitas Educational Consultants, this can be a valuable opportunity to take stock. "The critical thing to ask yourself is why this has happened," he says. "If you are studying the wrong subject, then no amount of retaking is worth it, but this is a chance to rethink. If there are other reasons, such as simply not working hard enough, or illness or family problems, then there is merit in retaking."

If it's a question of GCSE grades, particularly in critical subjects such as maths or English, most schools will offer resits. But if it's A-level grades that need improving, there are other options. "Tutorial colleges in the independent sector are past masters at retakes," says Richard Leathes.

A-levels can often be re-taken over one or two years, though a one-year intensive course means seriously hard work. He recommends seeking advice from teachers, who will be able to identify specific weaknesses and problems, and also from an objective, independent professional. "This is an emotional time, and it's easy to do the wrong thing. There is bound to be a solution but it's a question of taking time to find it. The instant solution is not always best."

This is particularly true since tutorial colleges don't come cheap; a one-year course covering three A-levels is likely to cost in the region of £12,000-£16,000, though if you plan to spend two years retaking it's also worthwhile considering state- funded options.

So, what's the retake experience like? Colleges and courses come in many forms, says Richard Leathes: some specialise in particular subjects, some offer group tuition, others one-to-one learning, and some are residential. This is a different learning experience to school, says Steven Boyes, principal of the London-based independent college Mander Portman Woodward. "The teaching is far more accelerated and the pupils are really tested on their understanding. There is an emphasis on exams and timed work to ensure that they can work under pressure."

There is also, he says, a more mature atmosphere. "We try to find the middle ground between a traditional independent school and a university environment, though we are very strict about attendance, punctuality and the work ethic. Retakes can pay off big-time but they have to be treated like a job of work."

However, he says, retake candidates tend to be highly motivated. "For many students, it's a real kick in the stomach if they haven't made their grades. Some are bright pupils who have achieved B grades already, and to fall at the final hurdle is a very bitter pill. It really galvanises them. One of our main initial tasks is to help to restore their self-confidence; and then they are likely to do very well indeed.

Gabbitas: 020-7734 0161; www.gabbitas.co.uk

Mander Portman Woodward 020-7835 1355; www.mpw.co.uk

National Association for Primary Education: 01865 890281; www.nape.org.uk

Staples: branches nationwide; www.staples.co.uk

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