Whether your child will be venturing through the school gates for the very first time or you're an old hand needing some reminders amid the distractions of the summer holidays, here's our ultimate back to school guide.
1. For children starting reception, get them used to the idea and familiar with the school environment well in advance.
Starting school is a huge milestone in their young lives and many small children feel daunted by the prospect (although others skip into the classroom with barely a backward glance at their teary parents...). Ease nerves and concerns by getting them used to the idea and familiar with their new school by going to any settling in and 'getting to know you' events, buying or borrowing a book about starting school and meeting up with any prospective classmates you already know over the summer.
Consider doing a trial of the journey at school run time if you're not sure how long it will take (don't forget to allow time for parking if you'll need to drive - spaces can be beyond elusive outside many primary schools).
Whilst you're there, point out any alluring features to big the place up to your son or daughter, along the lines of 'wow look at that cool playground equipment - imagine playing on that at break time'. Talk about happy aspects of your own school days too.
2. Focus on getting socks and shoes on, more than sums and reading (for now at least).
Four-year-old school starters don't need to know how to read or write or recite the alphabet from A to Z - that's what they're going there to learn - but there are some non-academic skills your child should master if at all possible to make the days run more smoothly.
An ability to go to the loo independently and clean themselves afterwards probably tops most reception teachers' lists of what they'd like their new joiners to be comfortable with. Next up comes being able to get changed into their PE kit and back into their main uniform, although there will usually be someone to help with anything especially fiddly such as shirt buttons.
The lunch supervisors will also thank you if your child can eat using a knife and fork and cut most foods up (again, there's normally a staff member around to assist with chopping something tricky).
Focusing on a skill a week through the summer holidays might work well - so week one could be putting their socks on, week two managing their shoes, week three their coat and week four changing for PE (remember their kit might well all be in a pile at the bottom of their bag, rather than laid out neatly and facing the right way by mum or dad).
They won't be expected to be reading Tolstoy on day one (or even the dreaded Biff and Chip of reading scheme infamy - if you don't know what I'm talking about, you probably soon will), but recognising their own name on a label is handy. It'll mean they can spot their tray or peg and identify their shoes and uniform (assuming you've named them...see below), which in turn leads to fewer things getting lost.
3. Don't plan too much for term one after school or at weekends – they will almost definitely be tired and emotional
Even 'graduates' of full-time nursery can find proper school tiring due to so much being new and exciting. Your previously impeccably behaved offspring might well become a grump monster at picking up time which is frustrating and disappointing when you're keen to know how the day went but are greeted only by grunts of 'dunno' and tantrums.
The after-school grouchies are also commonly caused by hunger, as younger pupils tend to have lunch pretty early, so by 3pm they're ravenous. Overall your anti-school kid strop armoury includes early nights, keeping afternoons and weekends relaxed and going to school pick-ups with a healthy snack or two at the ready.
4. Stock up on uniform
A photo of a small child in slightly too big uniform on their first day has a special place in any family's album, but before you can start snapping pics, you need to buy the stuff and step one is the school's official uniform list. Most primaries will have this on their website but if not, call the office as soon as possible. If you're reading this after the end of the summer term and have missed the boat, find someone with an older child in the school and ask them what you need to get.
There's no right answer to how many of each item to purchase but the more sets you buy, the less frequently you'll have to do the laundry (although unfortunately the initial outlay will be higher). Generally you'll need more tops - shirts or dresses - than bottoms - skirts or trousers - as they tend to get dirtier quicker.
Save money by mixing official school logoed uniform for 'best' (school photos, concerts and performances) and a couple of non-logo generic cheaper versions (most state schools allow plain alternatives). Find out too if your school has a secondhand sale or befriend someone with a child in the year above who might be happy to offload last year's kit.
We have lot of information on uniform shopping with our buyer's guide.
5. They'll only have one pair of school shoes so make sure they fit properly
Children tend to only have one pair of shoes for the many hours a week that they're at school, so it's especially important that they fit their growing feet well. Getting a professional shoe fitting will ensure you get the correct size – both width and length - with a little room to grow so you can get your money's worth.
Choose a style that suits your little one's preferred playtime activities – if they're going to be running and jumping around and playing ball games, a flexible sole will help them move.
Also consider a ease of fastening for younger children to maximise the chances of them managing their own shoes on PE days. Talking of which, don't forget a pair of plimsolls as well. For older pupils re-check the uniform list in case it requires football boots or trainers if they will be stepping up their sporting activity in their new year group.
Timing your school shoe shopping right is key: you don't want to go too late and get stuck in queues but you don't want to do it too early and then find that by September, the shoes have been outgrown already. Anytime from around four weeks before the start of term is optimal. Take something for your child to do in case there is a bit of a queue and don't forget to shove a pair of their school socks in your bag for the fitting.
Shoe retailer Clarks has introduced an appointment system in all its retail stores, so get prepared and avoid the queues! Book at a time to suit you and get seen by a fitting expert as soon as you arrive for your appointment.
6. Now you've got it all, keep it: name EVERYTHING (but good news - you don't have to get the sewing kit out)
Naming everything come early September is essential to avoid the hell that is the lost property rummage. Skip the traditional back to school tedium of sewing on of name labels by opting for clips to attach fabric name tapes with, using a Stamptastic name stamper or a good old laundry pen (although this might not look as smart).
Name stickers are also a must-have for labeling all sorts from shoes to water bottles and pencil cases.
7. Raid the stationery shop
Over the course of the last academic year, their once full and pristine pencil case contents will have dwindled to a single scraggy pencil stub and the dog-eared remains of a scented eraser.
Before splurging too much in the stationery shop, check what they actually need – most reception and KS1 classes provide the basics and only allow pencils not pens; juniors are more likely to require their own gear. If in doubt keep receipts or buy items they can use at home anyway. Watch out too for quality – those bargain cheap pencils might be a false economy if the leads snap off before the end of the first lesson of the first day.
Of course, they'll also need a bag to transport the snazzy new pencil case you have just bought (and the daily leaflet mountain). Some schools specify a regulation bag, in others anything goes. If everyone does need the same one, cut down on the scope for your child bringing someone else's home (handy for those devious reading book snoops among you though...) by tying a ribbon to the handle or clipping on a keyring so they can recognise their own amid the sea of identical bookbags.
8. Confirm any before and after school care you need
Some clubs get booked up and places with the best childminders go. If you're new to the school, ask parents with children who are already there for tips on local options and views on how good any wrap-around provision is. Start thinking about holiday care now if you're working and used to full time, all year round nursery.
9. Make this the year you get uber-organised
Fed up of chaos erupting at about 8.30am each morning when you realise you've forgotten the crucial form or left the homework behind? Make this the year you become that impressively organised parent with our top tips:
- Dedicate a box file or kitchen drawer for the endless forms and leaflets – when your son screams that he needs the trip permission slip 15 seconds before you're due out of the door, voila, you will know exactly where it is.
- When your granny used to say 'a place for everything and everything in its place' it was probably because she had many years of school run mornings under her belt. Follow her advice and have set spots for everyone's shoes, bags, musical instruments and PE kit so you (or preferably your children) will be able to find them quicker than you can yell 'well where did you have it last?'
- Especially if you've got a brace of school age offspring and struggle to remember that Monday means violin and football kit for the eldest, ballet and homework hand-in for the middle one...etc. start checklists for each child summarising what they must take each day, plus the daily gear, such as a water bottle or lunch box. Encourage them to take responsibility for gathering their own belongings up, ideally getting them ready the night before.
- They aren't everyone's thing in this age of smartphone electronic diaries, but those family organiser calendars with a column for each member of the household have saved many a parents' bacon when it comes to remember who needs to be where and when. Whether you're an 'old school' paper calendar type or prefer online, now's the time to start filling in details of term dates, class assemblies, training days and all.
- Start collecting pound coins and 50ps now for all those charity days/ non-uniform/ bake sales and small envelopes/ old ones you can re-use to put the coins and all the slips in.
10. Return to routine during the last few days before they go back (or maybe choose one last PJs 'til lunchtime day)
If you've been enjoying relaxed evenings and lounging in bed in the mornings amidst a pile of pillows, children and teddy bears, getting back to the school day routine can come as quite a shock to the system.
Work towards restarting earlier nights and mornings a few days before so it's less of a struggle to haul yourselves out of bed on day one and less of a battle at bedtime. OR, alternatively say to heck with that and just enjoy your last weekday of all lounging in PJs for a while...