School rules that make for shopping hell

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The Independent Online
THIS week I have had an expensive encounter with the school uniform shop. If you don't have children, you may wonder why anyone bothers to buy a winter uniform in flaming June. The answer is that the normal rule of customer as king does not apply to school uniforms. You are a captive, they have the goods that admit your child into the new tribe, and all wise parents who have been in this situation before know that you have to strike while the stock is high and in the shop.

Another mother, whose daughter is already at the secondary school that my 11-year-old enters in September, tipped me off about a six-week delay for skirts if they don't have the correct size: this is a small outlet, not a John Lewis-size department store. So I made an appointment (they suggest this is better than just turning up). And, since secondary schools are starting the new year ever earlier in September, and there are holidays in August, I estimated that now might be the best time to go.

When you are about to spend pounds 200 to kit out your child (much more for some of the top public schools), you might expect a bit of service. But despite my appointment, the family in front of me was running late, so after a wait, I was finally allocated an assistant with a tortoise approach to selling. There was no attempt to measure my daughter, no sense of the cost of things, no sign of an official school list (yes, I'd forgotten mine). The rows of school clothes bore no prices: these are not mentioned until the final totting up. You have to have the uniform and that is that.

As an incomer to a new school, you are also cut off from the second-hand sales with which future outfits can be augmented, or hand-downs from friends whose children are leaving. But the urge to get kitted out goes deeper than that. It seems wrong to start a new school in someone else's cast-offs.

So, after two dreary hours of hopeless searching through stock rooms and poorly marked shelves by the 'tortoise', the new school clothes, so painfully selected, were piled up in a bundle on the floor and I had to cajole my daughter into accepting a blazer that is most certainly a size too big, and a skirt that is certainly too long. But growing room is vitally important when you have to get everything in one go far ahead, instead of piecemeal in the way one collects a normal wardrobe.

The final bill of pounds 187 was deceptively understated because it included one skirt only and two shirts. It does not include a winter coat because the previous one, at pounds 90, is being discontinued (ruling out the possibility of picking one up at a future second-hand sale), but no decision has yet been passed down the chain of command to the uniform suppliers about what should replace it: a raincoat from Marks & Spencer would be great. The biggest shock of all was the pounds 45 track suit, which vies with Benetton on price, but with trousers far too long for an 11-year-old.

When we got home my daughter tried it all on again and did a fashion parade. She said bits of it (such as the pounds 11 games shirt) were very nice. I even got the impression she was looking forward to starting her new school.

Or perhaps it was just the lure of the new. Her current school jumpers have badly frayed cuffs. She says the class hamster likes nibbling them; I've told her to give them to him on the last day.

F SCOTT FITZGERALD was right: the rich really are different. Who cannot have been amazed this week at the rewards and the lives of the really loaded. This vast and unbridgeable gulf seems even more remarkable and worthy of exploration than the ceaseless debate about our all too obvious underclass and the way a great many people in the middle are being forced into short-term contracts, part-time working and early retirement.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of George Michael's golden slavery, he has the financial freedom to announce, without a glance at his bank balance, that he'd launch an immediate appeal against the Sony judgment, despite the estimated pounds 3m legal costs already clocked up. When Richard Branson and family had an accident and miraculously escaped, he was naturally driving a new Range Rover. While the signalmen battle to escape from an arbitrarily imposed 2.5 per cent public sector pay ceiling, the Financial Times reported on a mind-boggling pounds 13.5m salary package clocked up by a fortunate Jim Fifield, head of Thorn EMI's music business. He has trebled his rewards in one year, and the only voice raised against this, a City leisure analyst, said, 'he has gone a bit overboard'.

PS. ONE good thing about this summer is that you can turn on the hosepipe and get on with a bit of pleasurable garden watering without feeling a shred of guilt: not a cloud of a drought warning in the skies.