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Sinead Ryan: My top tips for cutting down on that back-to-school bill

YOU know us by our stressed, harried appearance as we traipse around department stores, whingeing children in hand. We don't want to be there; they certainly don't want to be there. Yes -- it's "back to school" shopping time. The bane of every parent's life.

But the biggest obstacle to getting your child re-kitted out for the school is the cost.

Barnardos' survey showed that our "free" education system is nothing of the sort. It costs €350 to send a child to Junior Infants and a whopping €805 to Secondary school. Yikes!

Well, there are some things you can do to cut back on costs. We want the best for our kids, but that doesn't have to mean the most expensive.

UNIFORMS: It's not just the jumper, skirt and shirt.

It's the extra set you have to buy for wash days and wear days; the 'growing room' set and the spare one because you know the boys will have the knees out of their trousers before the mid-term break.

Think the quality is better in a more expensive shop? Actually a chain store can fit the bill just as well -- most uniform garments are made to be extra durable, so do buy in Tesco, Dunnes' or Penneys. You'll at least get two for the price of one elsewhere.

Get parents together to "swap" good condition hand-me-downs. Official jackets, gabardines and skirts or kilts are especially expensive, so concentrate on these.

Bring the kids, meet up, have a coffee and a laugh while you're doing the 'fittings'.

CRESTS: Over 80pc of Primary schools and 96pc of Secondary school require a school crest on uniform jumpers. This can increase the price from a tenner for generic to fifty or sixty euro in the "uniform" shop. Much cheaper to cut off the crest from last year's raggedy jumper and sew it on to a department store jumper or PE tracksuit this year.

Or, as I did, find out where the crests are made and buy them separately -- mine cost me €3 each which shows you the rip-off of the 'proper' ones.

BOOKS: Barnardos' has called on Minister Ruairi Quinn to make book rental schemes mandatory, but just 41pc of primary and a very disappointing 34pc of Secondary schools offer one.

You may not be able to do anything for September, but lobby hard for next year.

Sometimes the barrier is simply that the school has nobody to administer it -- join the Parents' Association, or start a rental committee and organise it.

PETITION: Books only change because publishers push to sell new editions.

The law of large numbers applies. Get a petition going among parents. Ask teachers to cut down on single-use workbooks -- the lazy option for them, but expensive for you.

STATIONERY: This doesn't have to break the bank. Go with other parents to a wholesaler and buy in bulk.

Scrub up last year's school bag and pencil case and re-use folders and lunchboxes. No child needs brand new every year unless it's ruined.

HELP: If you're in receipt of social welfare, do claim the Back To School allowance. It won't cover everything -- it's €200 for Primary and €305 for Secondary and 3rd level, but it's a help. You can find the form online at www. Welfare.ie or via Citizens' Information. Phone the St Vincent de Paul.

They are discreet, helpful and a godsend for many families just like you.

And that "voluntary" contribution? Schools are always in dire need of money, but you'd be surprised at the number that help parents, directly or indirectly, by giving as well as taking money. A discreet request to pay monthly is often met with empathy and even an offer of assistance.

Don't be afraid to ask -- write if you're embarrassed to talk to the Principal directly. In my experience you won't be the first or the last, and they're only too happy to help out.