Back To School Essentials: School Uniforms

The sight of your child dressed in pristine and slightly too big school uniform for the first time might well bring a tear to your eye, but before you get this far, you've actually got to buy the stuff. Together with Camilla Rowe, Head of Children's wear at John Lewis, we've come up with our school uniform buying tips, covering what, where, and when.

Your first step, is obviously checking your school's uniform list. 'Normally some

items will have the school logo and might need to be bought from the school's official supplier, although state schools are meant to offer a non-logo'd 'generic' alternative to keep costs down for parents,' explains Camilla. If you do need a specific logo uniform, visit the John Lewis school uniform mini site for specific schools around the country.

With generic garments, such as grey trousers or tunics, whilst you can buy them from an official uniform shop, you'll find options for these in all the major stores and it can pay to shop around.

When to buy

'Start about four to six weeks before term starts,' says Camilla. 'Much earlier and they might have an unexpected growth spurt, much later and some stores might have less choice or a particular item might be out of stock in your child's size.'

If you find you've under bought, you'll still be able to find extras throughout the academic year but it might well mean going online.

How much of everything do I need?

There's a cost versus laundry frequency trade-off here - the more you buy, the fewer times a week you'll have to put the washing machine on and the less chance there is of forgetting to do so, and finding yourself in a panic at 8am on a Friday morning because there's no clean uniform anywhere!

Here are our suggestions for quantities (the first figure assumes you wash things twice-weekly, the second is for those preferring once weekly):

• Sweaters/ cardigans/ sweatshirts x 3 (5)

• Polo shirts/ shirts 3 (4 or 5)

• Trousers/skirts 3 (4)

• Socks 4 or 5 pairs

• PE Kit - 1 set including plimsolls (normally needed but check the uniform list)

• School shoes - 1 pair

• PE bag - not always required - check the uniform list

• Regulation book bag - not always required, check the uniform list. If there isn't one you'll need to choose your own school bag.

• A tie, if needed. If there's a clip-on/ elasticated option, it'll be much easier than having to help a four-year-old fasten a proper one each morning. Buy two in case one ends up lost/ with lunch down it.

• A school coat

• If the uniform list specifies a 'regulation' hat, scarf and/ or pair of gloves, lunch and art aprons, one of each of these should be enough.

Spending less

If money is tight, find out if there's a second hand uniform shop run by the school - even if you'd rather have a few sets of uniform new, a couple of hand-me-down sweaters or the like could be welcome extras.

If your family income is low, you could be eligible for funding to pay for uniform, contact or your Local Education Authority to find out more.

Don't forget to name EVERYTHING

Label, label, label! Stuff gets lost all the time in schools and you've little hope of getting that brand new school coat back if it didn't even have your child's name on.

If you haven't got the time or the patience for sewing on nametapes you have some easier alternatives: iron-on versions (but we've found these fall off with repeated washing) or a laundry pen. A lot of garments have a place for writing a child's name on the washing instructions label inside which is fine as an extra but less visible to your child when trying to work out which of the 30 grey pullovers is theirs. We also rather like Stamptastic's name stamps which come with permanent ink stamper pads - very quick to use but a little neater than a laundry pen.

Clever folk with more than one child, who plan to pass items down to a second wearer in the family, just put their surname on uniform (provided it's unusual enough – not a great strategy for Smiths and Joneses!)

A set of stickers with your child's name on will be handy for all sorts, from drinks bottles and lunchboxes (even if they'll have school dinners, they might still need one for school trip packed lunches) to toys taken in for show and tell.

Our other uniform tips:

• If you have a choice of colours e.g. grey or white shirts, go with the darker shade - stains will show up less.

• If the school's uniform list gives options such as skirts or pinafores for girls, and you're unsure about your child being the 'odd one out', ask around among those with older children at the school. If it isn't too late at the start of next term, have a quick drive past at picking up time to see if most wear one or the other.

• Avoid tights for younger girls if possible - helping a horde of little ones get them on when it's PE day is a headache for reception teachers.

• If your child is on the skinny side, look for trousers and skirts with adjustable waistbands (try M&S and Next for these).

• New clothing technology can make life easier - non-iron garments cut down laundry time and Teflon coatings on trousers and skirts can limit stains.

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