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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sandra Haurant

Back to school: how parents should prepare for the big day

Illustration: how to best prepare for back to school day
As the new school term looms for many parents, it is decision time. Illustration: Jose Antonio Roda

Only buy what you need

The Department for Education issued statutory guidance to schools last year aimed at making uniforms more affordable. It includes keeping school-branded items to a minimum, making secondhand uniforms easily available, and giving priority to value for money (including durability, not just low costs).

This followed campaigns on the affordability of uniforms: in 2020, the Children’s Society published the findings of a survey of 1,000 parents of state schoolchildren, which said they were paying an average of £337 a year for secondary school uniforms, and £315 for primary school ones.

A school uniform shop in Buckinghamshire.
The best deals for school uniforms are at the start of the summer. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Reuters

In response, The Schoolwear Association published a study based on retailers’ prices that put the average cost of “compulsory” elements of school uniform at £101.19 for each pupil in 2020 – and since some items can be used in subsequent years, it said the real annual cost would be £36.24.

“This is where specialist retailers perform a function in their communities, over and above what a high street retailer or supermarket will be doing, because they are taking parents through what is a big step,” says Matthew Easter, chairman of the Schoolwear Association. “You get bombarded with paperwork, and a school uniform retailer will metaphorically hold your hand and take you through that process and tell you ‘this is what you need, this is what you don’t need, you can always come back for that later.’”

Buy early for special deals

It might be too late this year, but the best deals for school uniforms can be found at the start of the summer, according to the Association. Take advantage of school intake days. It says: “The uniform supplier is often on site, and might do a bundle deal for new parents coming in.”

Look out for discounts in June and July. “Lots of uniform businesses, as well as shops on the high street, will incentivise people to come in early because, as an industry, we’d love to spread customers out. You don’t want to have people queueing out the door at the end of August, which does happen.” Tesco was offering 25% off school uniforms for Clubcard members, but only until 1 August. However there are still competitive deals for basics on offer at supermarkets.

Spread the cost

Items with the school’s logo can usually only be bought from a contracted supplier, which can mean higher-than-high-street prices. The Association says: “In some cases parents may be able to split the cost over several months with no extra costs and no interest.”

Check with your school if such options are available.

Opt for secondhand

Look at the school’s website for ways to buy secondhand items, and local online marketplaces such as Facebook, Vinted and eBay, where parents are often selling whole bundles for a few pounds.

Kathryn Shuttleworth, the managing director of the school uniform provider David Luke, suggests starting a collection point in your playground, or hosting a stall at the summer fair where families can exchange children’s outgrown uniform with others.

Or find a family with a child in the year above and get into the habit of handing down outgrown items at the end of term.

Are you eligible for help?

Low-income families may qualify for a grant to help with the cost of uniforms in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and some areas of England. In most cases, they need to apply, while a handful of councils award grants automatically for eligible children.

Shop cleverly for shoes

Supermarkets have competitively priced shoes: Sainsbury’s Snaffle loafers start at £16, and plimsolls are £3. It might be pushing uniform regulations, but if you can get away with it, Asda has some black patent light-up shoes with glittery unicorn soles for £15.

The Clarks retail logo
Clarks have outlet stores across Britain selling shoes for up to 30% off. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Simon Jones, chair of the children’s podiatry advisory group at the Royal College of Podiatry,” says: “The reality is that there is no strong evidence to underpin that spending more on children’s shoes provides your child with a better shoe or better foot health. The research is just not there. We recommend a shoe that fits well and has adequate length and width to allow the foot to fit into the shoe and not press it (either widthways or lengthways). It also needs a good fastening. The other characteristics of a school shoe are not proven to be beneficial to the child’s walking. The school shoe can be obtained from any outlet as long as it meets those criteria and is within the school policy.”

The back-to-school stalwarts Clarks have outlet stores across the country selling shoes for up to 30% off. At the time of writing, its Air Learn Jnr (size 13.5 in a G fit) were £33, reduced from £44.

You can book a slot online to have your child’s feet measured in the outlet store and buy shoes in person (or have them measured in your local branch and buy the corresponding size from the outlet store online – it offers free returns).

MandM Direct has brands at lower prices – when we looked, Kickers Junior Fragma leather shoes in black (size 2) were £34.99 plus £4.99 for the cheapest delivery option (total £39.98), compared with £58 (with free delivery) on the Kickers website.

Weigh up lunch options

Pupils in reception, and years one and two in English state schools, get free school lunches. In Scotland, the same is true for children in primary one to five. In Wales, universal free school meals are being rolled out from September, beginning with children in reception, and by 2024 every primary school pupil will receive one.

Families with low incomes can apply for free school meals – and any child who is eligible can also take part in the holiday activities and food programme, offering activity clubs and a hot meal.

For children who do pay for school meals, prices vary across the country. One primary school in Bristol charges £2.30, while in Leicester meals cost £2.35 in primary school and £2.55 in secondary school. Schools are under pressure as food prices rise.

The debate over whether or not it’s cheaper to make a packed lunch is age-old, and, of course, it all depends on what you put in the lunchbox. School food standards state that meals should include “a wide range of foods across the week” and “use fresh, sustainable and locally sourced ingredients”, and according to School Health UK, it is impossible to match school meals on nutrition and portion size in packed lunches for the same price.

In terms of packed lunch ideas, Miguel Barclay, the chef behind One Pound Meals, suggests a club chicken sandwich: “Especially good if you’ve made chicken for dinner the night before. Save some leftovers, and most other ingredients will be in the fridge.”

He adds that couscous “is such a versatile ingredient”, and also that quick and easy baked filo pizzas “are so much more interesting than boring sandwiches wrapped in clingfilm”.

Is there free transport?

If your closest school is a bit of a hike, ask your local authority if you qualify for free school transport. Children under eight are eligible if their closest school is more than two miles away. With those aged eight and over, it is if the school is three miles away.

You may also qualify if you are entitled to free school meals, or if there is no safe walking route.

Over-16s in college or sixth form may be able to claim a discount on travel fares, too.

Refurbished technology

A child does maths activities on an iPad
A child does maths activities on an iPad. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Whether you are thinking of getting a new phone for your child, or they need a laptop or tablet, refurbished models can offer substantial savings.

Back Market has a huge range of secondhand, high-end products, including half-retail-price iPhones and iPads, sold with 12 months’ warranty. (There’s a 5% student discount, but only for those in higher education.)

Meanwhile, the eBay refurbished pages carry a range of nearly new technology.

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