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Best in class: Who gets top marks in school shopping?

Journalist and mum-of-three Karen Ireland gets a lesson in back-to-school shopping as she finds out which local retailers get top marks this coming term.

Just like Christmas-time, the end of August comes around every year. And, if you are a parent, just like the festive season, it proves to be one of the most expensive months in the calendar.

Kitting children out for the new school year is a huge expense, which, in the current economic climate, many parents struggle to cope with.

This week, I went to the sports shop designated for gear and equipment for two of my three sons and almost hit the floor when one pair of tracksuit bottoms and a pair of shorts set me back £50.

The list of requirements, while varying from school to school, is endless: the actual uniform of trousers, blazers, shirts, skirts, tie, jumpers and shoes is often just the starting-point.

If your child attends secondary school, then there is the seemingly interminable list of sports gear; from indoor and outdoor games wear, to shoes, rugby boots, hockey sticks, tennis racquets. Soon, you're in need of a calculator – and even greater need of an overdraft.

If it's a primary school, then there is another endless list: stationary, pencil cases ... and not forgetting that all-important stand-out-from-the-crowd school bag and lunchbox.

Parents of first form, or upper sixth, children seem to get the rawest deal of all, as everything is needed from scratch, instead of squeezing another term out of a that just-about-make-it blazer, or rugby kit.

As the mother of a P7 pupil, a second former and a fourth former, I have no shortage of secondary school expense, as, with growing boys, last year's uniforms literally don't fit the bill any longer.

So we decided to do all the homework for parents by shopping around to see who is offering top-class deals this summer. First on our whistle-stop tour of some of the province's leading stockists of back to school wear was the old reliable Marks & Spencer.

Here we found a plethora of uniforms, ranging from pre-school, with shorts and tops, to sixth formers, with dark trousers and classic white shirts.

The selection was good, with most items available in a good range of sizes. Staff were helpful and accommodating – even when my 10-year-old, Teo, opened up some of their well-packaged sets to get a closer look.

It's fair to say that the collection here could, perhaps, be beaten on price, but when it comes to quality and choice, they would be hard to knock off the top spot.

Two-packs of non-iron shirts start from £9, two-packs of trousers with adjustable waists start from £12, with jumpers from £5, two-packs of polo shirts from £5 and grey pleated girls' skirts from £16 for two. Prices vary according to age.

Next stop Next, where we discovered that, while they have a wide selection of back to school wear, it can only be ordered online (at www.next.co.uk).

Instore, they carry just a small selection of school bags and shoes.

Sample online prices: trousers from £7, two-pack white long-sleeved shirts from £8.50, polo shirt two-pack from £9 and pleated grey girls' skirts from £5.

Once again, there was a good selection available, but it is disappointing that the clothing can't actually be tried on instore – especially as children may be the same age, but a completely different shape and size to their classmates.

And so to Sainsbury's, where there were several aisles dedicated to back to school wear.

The best news here is that there is currently 25% off all schoolwear. The offer ends on Monday (August 25).

Discounted sample prices mean trousers are £7.50, two-packs of long-sleeved white shirts from £4.50, three-packs of polo shirts in a variety of colours from £2.63 and pleated grey skirts from £4.50.

My advice is to hurry along over the weekend to avail of the discount, which could lead to great savings if you are buying more than one uniform.

Next on the list was Tesco, which is perhaps where you will find the best value with a wide selection of clothing and lots of accessories, stationery, bags and lunch boxes to choose from.

Sample prices here are two-packs of trousers from £6, two-packs of long-sleeved white shirts from £7, polo shirts are just £2.50 for a two-pack and two grey pleated girls' skirts start at £5.

Then it was time to visit Asda, which has bright, colourful advertising for their George back to school range.

Sample prices of the wide selection on offer are trousers from £3.50, two-pack white long-sleeved shirt (up to age 18) from £3.50, two-pack of polo shirts in a variety of colours from £2.50 and girls' grey pleated skirt from £3.50.

Our final lesson was in BHS which has long been a stalwart of back to school clothing. Again there was good variety and a good range of sizes and choice of colours.

Sample prices include two-packs of trousers from £7, two-packs of long-sleeved non-iron white shirts from £8, packs of three polo shirts from £4.50 and girls' pleated grey skirts from £7.

What I learned was that most of the local retailers still have a wide selection of stock available, as well as offering the option to buy online.

Staff are helpful and have seen all the tears and tantrums and have been there, done that and got the T-shirt by the time it comes to you.

As always, it does pay to shop around, but it is good if you can get as much of your list in one place as possible.

Some of the stores do everything – from underwear and socks to lunch boxes, as well as the clothes.

Don't put it off any longer: term-time is upon us!

What Teo made of his trolley dash

I didn't much like shopping for my school uniform, as I hate trying things on because it takes too long.

In the end, we got a new jumper, polo top and trousers, as the ones from last year didn't fit me anymore.

What I did enjoy, though, was when my nanny and papa took me shopping for all the stationery that I needed.

I got loads of new pens and pencils and colouring pens. I also got folders, paper and new pencil cases.

Everyone keeps asking if I am looking forward to going back to school. I am not, as I hate homework.

And the way we have to work for hours all day in school and then come home to do more work – I don't think that is fair.

I am looking forward to seeing all my friends again and playing in the playground at break-time and lunchtime. And I love school dinners – especially the lasagne and the chicken pie!

I made lots of new friends this summer, as we stayed in Annalong and Portballintrae in a caravan and there were lots of children my age, so it was great fun. I am sad that the summer is almost over and I have to go back to school next week.

  • Teo is 10 and is going into P7 at Dromore Central Primary School in Co Down

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