As parents scramble to get organised for a new school term, a trip through old newspapers reminds us that some stresses, like locating the right uniforms, books and organising lunches, are eternal
‘THE blues and greys of school uniforms have taken over in the shops from the colourful cottons of summer, and the signs of a new season just around the corner are hard to avoid’, observed this newspaper 30 ago this week (Southern Star, August 29th. 1992).
School has been compulsory since 1880, and the all-too-familiar command ‘back to school’ – originally bellowed by the attendance officer – is ringing out again, signalling the end of an unusually warm summer holiday, and reminding pupils with a jolt that they must get ready to return.
What seemed like a huge chunk of time off school ebbed away slowly at first, then suddenly gathered pace, and is now almost out of sight.
West Cork shops have always risen to the challenges posed by the new school year. In Clonakilty, John Bateman’s Central Shoe & Boot Stores provided‘all footwear needs’(Southern Star, Sept 4th 1965), while John Atkins in Dunmanway encouraged parents to come to him first because he offered ‘special prices’ on school shoes (Southern Star, Sept 2nd 1967). In Skibbereen, Connolly’s, 37 North Street, supplied brown-laced and casual shoes for Mercy Heights Convent (Southern Star, Aug 25th 1984), Betty’s boasted a ‘complete range of school uniforms for all West Cork schools’, and Fitzgerald’s sold Clarks, Start-Rite and Tuff Go-Girl shoes.
But for ‘one of the biggest selections of school bags in West Cork’, a visit to the Children’s Shop in Bantry High Street was probably your best bet (Southern Star, Aug 29th 1992).
Some stores began flaunting the ‘back to school’ slogan even before the Second World War.
The Corner House, Skibbereen, reminded parents in 1937 that they would need to buy new outfits for their boys and girls. ‘Bring them in and get the right things’, it urged (Southern Star, August 21st 1937).
Uniforms have always been expensive, and some parents once preferred to buy them on the large side, so their children could ‘grow into’ them. Crested blazers, unobtainable in department stores, skirts and trousers of a prescribed colour, sturdy shoes, games kit, and a hardwearing school bag (or satchel), squeeze domestic budgets to such an extent that some families need to take out loans to afford them.
On top of this, parents have always had to pay for stationery and textbooks.
Indeed, an abiding memory for many adults is covering them every September with brown paper, or scraps of wallpaper. By the 1960s, pupils were expected to arrive equipped with a tin of mathematical instruments, including a ruler, protractor, set square, dividers and a pair of compasses, together with a duffel bag to carry t-shirt, shorts and plimsolls. Bandon cycle specialist Frank O’Sullivan & Sons suggested they also invest in a bike.
Avoiding the ‘smelly buses’ would make children ‘happier and healthier’ (Southern Star, Sept 9th 1972). Another Bandon outfit, Hilser Bros Ltd, nudged parents to buy them a quality (though ‘keenly priced’) Parker, Sheaffer or Cross fountain pen. Nowadays, annual back-to-school merchandising happens on an industrial scale, and window displays appear in shops even before the holidays have begun!
The Corner House’s 1937 list of ‘right things’ now embraces all the latest ‘must-haves’: from pocket scientific calculators to rainbow-coloured gel pens, niche stainless steel water bottles to stylish lightweight cycle helmets. A September 2022 wish list might well mention: a tablet, noise-cancelling earbuds, a neon USB flash drive, and a portable multiport charger. But some things never change.
Countless generations of pupils have greeted the prospect of going back to school with a mixture of excitement, anticipation and fear.
Thirty years ago, West Cork shopkeepers suggested careful planning in the weeks before, and visiting their shops early while stocks lasted. To reduce stress levels, the Southern Star advised getting organised well before the end of August, so pupils could enjoy the last few days of holiday to the full. That included getting a ‘school haircut’ and trying on the ‘universally hated’ uniform.
‘Going back to school means a big change for most pupils’ (Southern Star, Aug 29th 1992). A more recent survey revealed that 53% of those questioned dreaded returning to school after the summer holidays (Wilson Hartnell, 2014). Oh well, not long until mid-term!