School Uniforms revisited – Pros and Cons

As I predicted, McCullagh & Bothwell, the school uniform store, has been a second home to us over the past few months (with Woolworth’s, the grocery store, possibly being a runner-up). They already greet me by name when I show up. There is always something else to be gotten (and almost always during afternoon rush hour). Special socks for hockey. A track and field top that is different from the regular PE shirt. A netball skirt. School gym bags (first just one, thinking they could be shared across the different days, then two, then three with the addition of ever more after-school activities). More PE shirts, to replace lost ones. A school jacket (“Mom, I NEED one for tomorrow’s soccer game!”). Then, of course, the winter uniform.

So, for all those parents – myself amongst them – extolling the virtues of school uniforms, you should also be aware of the drawbacks. 1) They are expensive, especially in our case with just one supplier to choose from; 2) they are often poor quality – my boys have permanent blisters on both heels from their stiff black dress shoes; 3) There always seems to be something missing during our out-the-door morning rush; and 4) they have to be ironed! I ironed more in the 1st month than I had in the 5 years before that. (Luckily, ironing has now fallen under the jurisdiction of our domestic worker, who is much more accomplished and efficient in that department). Oh, and I almost forgot 5) When your 13-year old has to wear a tie and blazer to school every day, inevitably there will be stains of white-out, ketchup (tomaaaaaahto sauce) , and God-knows-what on the tie, and the blazer will regularly miss buttons. They just pop off and your child will have no recollection how that happened, and you will patiently sew them on again about once a week (or, in my case, not-so-patiently thrust the sewing needle in your child’s hand to teach important housekeeping skills). 

Not that we had a choice regarding uniforms. But here are some pointers for other expats:

  • Not all articles have to be bought at the official uniform store. The logo shirts and pants do, but shoes, for instance, just have to be of the “school shoe” category and can often be found more cheaply (and perhaps better quality) somewhere else. Edgar’s, a department store, has them, or some of the bigger Woolworth’s. Walking through a shopping center like Fourways Mall to see what’s available is a good time investment. Or, if you have a chance before even leaving for your assignment, you could bring them with you (black lace-up shoes for the boys and typically black closed-toe sandals with buckles or Velcro for the girls – your school will have a list of the exact requirements for each grade and gender). Shoes are expensive in South Africa (it’s not easy to find kids’ tennis shoes for much below R700 which is almost $100), so buying several pairs ahead is a good idea. “School shoes” is also a category at Amazon with great variety and affordable prices.
  • Don’t buy too much of everything. You’ll end up back at the store a gazillion times anyway, so you might as well start slow and see what you need. In our case, one dress per girl would have been okay, considering the washing machine is pretty much in constant use anyway. And you don’t really need a lunch box in school colors, even if it is on the list. The girls’ pink backpacks seem to be just fine too.
  • Check if your school has a second-hand store. Ours does – I can’t believe no one told me about it until we’d been here over a month! – and you can find items in decent shape there, at a fraction of the cost.
  • Label everything, even shoes! Then give your kids a sermon on the virtues of looking after one’s stuff, or you’ll forever be buying replacements. You can also order sew-in or iron-on name tags at the uniform store.
  • If your kids are close in age, as ours are, they can share some of the items that might not be needed every day.

In summary, I think uniforms are a good idea. They make the kids appear more, well, uniform, and they always look neat (or smart, as they would say here, whereas what we call smart is clever). Parents of girls especially will appreciate that there is much less debate about who is wearing which brand, and pleas like “Mom, I absolutely have to have a North Face jacket like Emily!” are a thing of the past. Come to think of it, in our 6 months here I haven’t bought a single piece of non-school clothing. Which might explain why you haven’t seen any blog posts on department stores and such – sorry ladies, I’m not a shopper!

Altogether, you definitely buy a ton in terms of school uniforms (I mean, how can a 13-year old lose his pants??? I think the only item we haven’t lost yet is the tie!). But you’ll probably make it up on other clothes, especially here in South Africa where the climate doesn’t require much winter gear. And the decision making process in the store is oh so simple, when just about the only choice you’re left with is whether to pick white or blue hair clips!

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