/ 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.

I still have and occasionally use a ruler from my school days. It’s marked British Made. The only materialism that I can remember was conker envy.

I agree with only sending children to school with basic phones and think all expensive smart phones should be banned.

I remember conker envy. Tales abounded of the ‘super conker’, and how it was produced, with stories of soaking in vinegar or white spirit.

Jim, thanks very much for that view from the “chalk-face”, if I can still call it that. (I bet you’re all on smartboards now – my old school seemed to be when I visited it 18 months ago…)

I wish I’d kept my slide rule. I could keep it next to my 7-figure mathematical tables and my precious stash of log graph paper.

I found my 4-figure log tables when moving home last year. The slide rule has deteriorated a bit, just like its owner. I’m not sure what Jim means by an approved calculator, but they did not exist when I was a lad.

In the 80s I struggled to find imperial graph paper. It’s rather useful when designing printed circuit boards because the pins on integrated circuit have a pitch of 0.1 inch, or did at the time.

Jim mentions marking in red ink. I used to use green pens for marking because some claimed that red looks aggressive. I’m not sure about that.

A quick google suggests that exam boards set rules for the approval of calculators – e.g. basic scientific calculators (like an original 1970s HP-35) would be allowed, but more advanced ones, e.g programmable ones, or ones with graphic displays, or ones with either symbolic or numerical equation solving tools would not be allowed. So my trusty 1996s vintage TI-83 would not be allowed.

My advice to invigilators was not to allow use of calculators with large displays during exams.

I doubt that schoolkids or teachers would get on well with the HP-35 calculator, which uses Reverse Polish Notation.

I hoping you’re not suggesting modern kids and teachers are “too thick” to _understand_ maths and computing!!!

Personally, I think RPN is consistent with the “modern” programming discipline of OOP (Object Oriented Programming) in which you first define and acquire your data and then set out the operations to be performed on that.

Wave: I also used green when marking. I believe a lot of secondary teachers do, too.

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Not at all, Derek, but RPN would come as a surprise to anyone familiar with using ordinary algebraic calculators. In my student days I frequently used HP-9100A and B, which displayed the register contents on a three line display – much better than using the later HP-35, albeit slightly larger. 🙂 I have not done any OOP but take your point. I have no idea if any affordable RPN calculators are available.

School uniform is a great leveller and means that getting dressed every morning is quick and easy. A bit like jeans and a T-shirt later on – something you don’t have to spend time and attention on – so that that attention and time can be spent on classes!

Essential ? only makers ,suppliers, and advertising hype think or insist they are . Most are NOT essential but just useful to have You can manage without if you do not have everything that some say you MUST have But some people MUST have everything it is possible to buy or own What has the world now become ?

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Possibly because girls need the option of full cover-up whereas boys don’t need an option to bare their legs or could wear short trousers.

Are there any bans in place? There was a recent case in which boy pupils wanted to wear skirts in hot weather and the school said it was against its uniform policy. After a harmless protest with a number of boys turning up in skirts the school relented and said it was OK for boys to wear skirts. Having gained the freedom I don’t think the boys have exercised it and I believe the issue has died as a topic. Perhaps some newspaper is still grinding away on it.

I was about to add that, but John’s covered it. And in Scotland it’s positively encouraged.

. . . and as Spike Milligan was prone to say “Is anything worn under the kilt?” ” No ma’am, it’s all in perfect working order.”


I can see advantages in having school uniform, providing it is available at a reasonable price. My parents had to kit me out in a blue blazer with the school coat of arms, only available from an expensive tailor. We were not required to wear uniform in the sixth form.

There was a sort of dress code at universities until the late sixties, although perhaps more of a convention based on what you could actually buy in the shops. I understand undergraduates are allowed to wear denim jeans these days.

I used to wear I tie when I was an undergraduate, being a rebel against stereotyping. I have never worn denim jeans in my life.

When bought my first denim jeans in the ’60s they were hard wearing work apparel rather than fashion statements. However, even now, basic denims are still good for mucking about in. I remember the days when everyone wore a suit and tie, with a cap or hat, even for a day out on the beach. And you’d never dream of going on an aeroplane in holy jeans and tee shirt.

These days I wear casual trousers and polo shirts most of the time. My real shirts languish in the wardrobe, along with my suits and a drawer full of ties. However, I did get dressed in a new suit, white shirt, tie and buttonhole for my son’s marriage and it did feel good to be looking smart. Incidentally, we bought our shirts from Charles Tyrwitt. Really good quality and a huge range of fits but a strange pricing policy – £60 each or 4 for £110 (or more pro rata). Any mix of sizes and styles. Buy 2 get 2 free plus £10 back.

School uniform identifies where you are from, as well as avoiding a clothing competition. My grandson’s outfit, including sportswear, cost £110 including a blazer that he loved. Not an inconsiderable outlay. I’d rather see widely available plain colours with badges you can sew on to give as much price choice as possible. But I like the principal of “uniform” clothing. His school sold essential stationery supplies at a low price.

Bless you for avoiding holy jeans, Malcolm. We did not have a principal of uniform clothing, or at least I did not meet him. 🙂

The principal enforced the uniform rules on principle, wavechange. Perhaps the staff should also wear uniform clothing. At my grammar school they wore gowns; gave a sense of status and authority. We had to wear them to lectures at university and at dinner.

If you look at where jeans wear out first, you would not want to buy them with holes there. Well, not in my case, but I do seem to sit down a lot when weeding.

Our staff wore gowns. Think the tradition disappeared after the mid-60s. Blazers are interesting. English schools still seem to have them, but Welsh schools, that we know of, don’t.

At my grammar school, some of the teachers did wear bat-gowns but the younger and more approachable ones must have worked out that black gowns and chalk dust are not a good combination.

Blazers have pockets for pens and pencils, conkers, phone, chewing gum, mice…… The days of leather satchels seem long gone.These days many carry rucksacks with most of their possessions; not great for exercise and soft text books though as they get a bit crumpled. School notes for mum also disappear.

I would like to wear suits more at the weekend but, without going to a made-to-measure or bespoke tailor with a choice of suitings and paying a fortune, it’s almost impossible to find a suit in colours other than navy or dark grey.

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I hope you were not wearing a three-piece suite, Duncan. 🙂 Morris dancers wear bells, but often they are not very sober, according to a friend who does that sort of thing.

Back on topic, are children allowed to wear jeans at school?

Very interesting