Thursday 22 March 2018

Dressing your children for success

Dressing your children for success in school Uniforms have now become a major expense for hard-pressed parents, writes Carissa Casey

Edan Bradley eases into his first day at Woodland national school,
Letterkenny, Co Donegal, last year
Edan Bradley eases into his first day at Woodland national school, Letterkenny, Co Donegal, last year

Most parents agree that having a school uniform is a good idea. It saves wear and tear on ordinary clothes and eliminates any style wars among budding fashionistas in the classroom.

But it is also a major expense. According to a survey by the children's charity Barnardos, uniform costs range from €85 for a child starting school, up to €290 for a student entering the first year of secondary.

The same survey also found that up to 90pc of students attend schools where the uniform must be purchased in a particular shop. Such a policy means that the uniforms are generally a great deal more expensive.

Ann Keelan's daughter Alie (12) starts secondary school in Donabate, Co Dublin, in September. Alie's skirt alone has cost her mother €65. "It's a particular design and so you can't shop around for the best price. It has to be bought in a particular shop," explains Ms Keelan.

So far Ms Keelan has spent €370 on the uniform. "It's a pain in the neck," she says. "I also had to spend about €350 on books. I guarantee something will be lost over the year. I'll be buying a new jacket or whatever next year."

Ms Keelan has an older daughter Hannah (14) already at secondary school. She reckons she paid €45 for Hannah's skirt a few years ago. "Prices are definitely not coming down," she says.

On the plus side, Ms Keelan is hopeful that the skirt and jacket (if it is not lost!) will last Alie a few years. Other items like jumpers and shirts will have to be replaced because of the additional wear and tear.

In contrast, Emer Bagnall is able to buy most of the items for her kids' uniforms wherever she wants. She opts for Marks & Spencer clothes for Gillian (9) and Helen (6) because she believes it's the best quality.

"I buy summer clothes for them at cheaper stores but really they're kind of disposable. They don't tend to last more than a wash or two. I reckon it would be more expensive in the long run to buy cheaper uniform items," she says.

Ms Bagnall goes for the slightly more expensive wool mix cardigans because she believes they are warmer and wash better. She also avails of special offers, like three items for the price of two, particularly for blouses. She finds one gym slip and one skirt works fine for the year, since the kids wear tracksuits some days.

Overall, she estimates that the main uniform costs about €80 per child. "The tracksuit has to be bought at a specific store.

"It's certainly not the cheapest tracksuit around but it is the only item we have to buy separately," she says.

"Given the amount of wear they get, I'd say the uniforms are well worth the expenditure," she says.

There is clearly a huge price difference between having to buy a uniform at a specific store and being able to shop around. It's up the school, however, to decide what parents can do.

Orla Murphy's mother used to make uniforms for a local school. She remembers sewing the buttons on the jackets when she was nine.

"It was a kitchen industry if you like," she says. "A few years ago when the shop where the uniforms were sold closed down I got involved on the business side."

At the time two of Ms Murphy's three children had started school. "The shop which sold the uniforms was really far away and it annoyed me that I had to go there for every little thing. The kids wouldn't want to go shopping and then you end up having to pay parking," she says.

"I saw an opportunity to make uniform buying a lot easier on parents. The internet was taking off and people were more comfortable buying online," she explains.

In 2006, Ms Murphy set up Bobbins (, an online school uniform business. She supplies a few local schools but also sells basic uniform items.

"I think the ideal scenario is where parents are able to shop around and buy from wherever they want," she says. "I think parents have every right to ask the school to change the policy if it doesn't suit them. I'd suggest getting a few parents together to raise the issue."

Like most dedicated uniform suppliers her clothes are slightly more expensive than items available in chain stores. For example, she estimates it would cost about €100 to kit out a child starting junior infants using her brands.

"I think the quality is better. You can get two years out of the cardigans rather than one year," she says.

"Also because we're here all year round you can replace items only when they need replacing. Maybe a kid can get a few more months out of a pinafore. Instead of having to buy a new one by September you can wait until it's needed."

Uniforms are rarely available in stores after October so if something needs replacing the options are limited to specialist suppliers. It also means that the entire uniform has to be bought over the summer months when all the other back to school items are purchased.

As for parents who are struggling to pay for a specific uniform from a specific store, the best advice is to get together with others and ask the school about its policy.

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