/ Parenting

Back-to-school supplies: how essential are the essentials?

back to school

September has rolled around and kids across the country are preparing for the new school year. Parents have been rushing out to buy stationery and what-not, but how essential are these school supplies?

When I was at school, I vividly remember spending the last week of the summer holidays each year kitting myself out with an armory of new pens, pencils and highlighters (half of which would inevitably get lost within the first two weeks). I’d then traipse around various shops trying to piece together the perfect school uniform.

As a teenager, I was less concerned about the cost of my back-to-school ensemble than I was about which shoes would look cooler with the ultra-black skinny jeans I’d finally managed to convince my parents were actually legitimate schoolwear.

But with parents reportedly spending nearly £175 per child on back-to-school ‘essentials’, according to a poll by Nationwide Current Accounts, I can now see why they call it the ‘back-to-school panic’.

The cost of going back to school

The bulk of the expenditure goes on school uniform, shoes, jackets and coats and sports kit.

But a separate survey by parenting website Channel Mum claims that 55% of children are given a new iPad or a similar device for going back to school.

From my own experiences of working with kids in classrooms, I think incorporating smartphones, tablets and the like into lessons is a great way of getting kids engaged in learning, providing use of them is monitored correctly.

But for all their use in the classroom, should these really be considered a new ‘essential’ in the long list of back-to-school purchases, considering the cost this would add to an already expensive time of year?

Although I’m not a parent yet, the thought of one day sending my child to school with an iPad is terrifying – I barely trust myself to look after one, let alone a 10-year-old!

Are you heading out to stock up on back-to-school supplies – what’s on your list? What items do you recall buying as ‘must haves’ when you were at school?​


Apart from uniform, sportswear and basic writing / drawing kit kids don’t actually need anything else. What they want, however, is what their friends have, or will bring, the latter being the probable cause of heavy expenditure by the parents.

Peer pressure’s a powerful influence.


Some of the products being featured in the ‘back to school’ sections in shops are trashy, poor quality, goods that will require early replacement. I am pleased to see that a geometry instruments set is still regarded as necessary and has not been superseded by more advanced technology.

I would add a pocket dictionary to the list of things that children should have – although the smart phone can provide this resource, that is another social separator. The educational advantage of a dictionary, though, is the other words one sees when looking up a specific word; you don’t get that with spell-check or on-line dictionaries.

The purpose of uniform school outfits was – apart from identification – to prevent parental wealth from distinguishing their children from others from poorer backgrounds. The tendency for lavish school accessories has side-stepped that objective and introduced status symbolism. It probably can’t be helped and in any case is fairly insignificant when the biggest indicator of social division is the car [or lack of] in which the pupils arrive. Hairstyles are another discriminator.

I don’t think we can put the genie of childhood innocence back in the bottle now. Notwithstanding austerity, we are a consumerist and exhibitionist society.


Not sure uniform was for that reason, John. I suspect it was always more to do with control. Otherwise, schools like Eton wouldn’t have uniform. Putting the kids all in the same uniform is a well proven method of social control. By eliminating individuality and creating an artificial rule-set to which the child must conform the school staff are already in an advantageous position.


I don’t know when school uniform became more or less universal at state schools. I think the public schools had specified outfits for generations and the state sector thought imitating the public schools would give them a certain distinction. I have a photo taken at my mother’s school in about 1918-20 showing seven to eleven year olds. There was no uniform as such but all the pupils wore similar clothes: smocks or pinafore dresses for the girls and short trousers and a jacket for the boys but no two were alike and were probably bought at the local clothiers. Tunics and blazers must have come along later and then they were embellished with various coloured braids and ribbons to emphasise the particular school. I think it is good that school uniform has been greatly simplified and can now be bought at supermarkets instead of expensive outfitters. My grammar school uniform was far too complicated with a different colour for each of the five houses featuring in most items, even down to the button on the cap. The outfitters must have made a fortune out of such variations.


“I think it is good that school uniform has been greatly simplified and can now be bought at supermarkets instead of expensive outfitters”

Some state schools use compulsory logoed (“liveried?”) tops and jackets, which are only available from single source specialist suppliers. This causes inconvenience and additional cost to parents, irrespective of their means.


Yes, that is an example of how some schools are continuing to make life more difficult than it needs to be. The school should supply sew-on or iron-on patches free of charge, or provide a free embroidering service, if they want the school name or badge on everything. I suspect there are financial considerations between the schools and the single source specialist suppliers. Children soon grow out of their uniforms, or wear them out quickly, so the cost of them should not be higher than necessary for decent and durable clothes.

Jim Titmuss says:
2 September 2017

Other departments will have other things (sports equipment, graphical calculator, etc.) but as a Physics and General Science teacher here’s my list of essentials, ‘nice to have’s and don’t buys.
Essentials – Pens (Ink, not gel, 1 Black and 1 Blue)
Pencil(s) max 2 + Sharpener (good utilitarian one)
Plastic ruler (see through 30 cm, 12″ in old money) – 30 cm if it fits in their bag, otherwise 15cm
Small rubber
Approved calculator (e.g. casio fx-83 – make sure they keep the instruction sheets and/or download the pdf)

Nice to have –
Green ink pen
Line of best fit ruler (couple of quid from institute of physics – http://www.IOP.org – I would recommend this for all year 7+ and highly recommend this for year 10+ and virtually insist on one for science at year12+)
Compass, Small Triangle (the Oxford sets are fine)
Index cards (have a few blank for each lesson to build up a set of personal flash cards)
Set of 4 small highlighters (I bought set for just over £1 from Ryman)

Don’t buy –
Distracting gadgets – e.g. toy pencil sharpeners, lots of different coloured pens and pencils.
Tippex or any form of liquid paper (the devil’s liquid)
Red pens – Teachers use red pens to mark, it confuses the bookwork for the student to use red.
Gel pens.

The lists above are just what I like/ don’t like in my lessons, multi-coloured pens may be fine for another subject but I find they are simply a distraction to the students. Remember, you’ll be told be your child’s school what they need and finally if you are going to give your child a mobile phone for school days – how about a basic phone for school and a state of the art one for weekends (you could simply swap the sim card over for weekends).

Good Luck.


I remember my mother still using the wooden ruler that she had as a child at school 60 years on. Although I really like see-through rulers nowadays I find it very sad that nobody gives anything back anymore and there is such a destructive and disrespectful attitude towards people’s belongings. All our pencils and pens used to have our names on them. Nothing of great value was taken to school – we went there to work – not to show off our possessions. I hate the attitude that everything needs to be new every school year – or even every term. It just encourages oneupmanship.

Hurray for the teacher who quietly puts a pencil in the hand of the child who can’t find one instead of making an issue of it in front of the class. I’ll happily fund them with more. Boo for the teacher who encourages the bringing of things like electronic games and phones into class and plays with them with the children instead of sending said children out in the playground to play and chat with other children.