In much the same way as Christmas begins some time in the middle of October, stores across the country have been in back-to-school mode since everyone took off for the summer holidays. If there is one thing likely to plunge people into the slough of despond, it has to be the sight of makeshift classrooms mushrooming in shop windows, complete with blackboards, uniforms and satchels.
But as it is the time of year when some restocking of pens and pencils, rulers and sharpeners is inevitable, it pays to shop around. Some excellent bargains can be had - and some rather pointless investments avoided, such as ready-made sets. Stationers offer a wide range of these (for maths, geometry, geography and such like) but why pay for one that includes an item that will never be used, when you could make up a personalised set for less?
For those who prefer to do their shopping from home, educational catalogues could be the answer. The TES has trawled through both the catalogues and the high street to provide a selection of good buys for everyone, from first-timers to old hands.
PENS AND PENCILS
The trouble with pens and pencils is that they disappear - down the backs of chairs, out of bags, into nooks and crannies. Although a pencil case may help to halt their nomadic excesses, it is a fair bet that whatever stocks you have at the beginning of term will have changed considerably by the end. It would be unwise, therefore, to fork out for expensive writing and drawing materials. A school is not the place for a gold-plated Mont Blanc. And unless your pencils are designed for art work or technical drawing, there is no point in spending a fortune on them.
At Woolworth's, whose back-to-school range covers all ages up to A-level, three jolly Simpsons pencils (suitable for any age group) are 99p and a twin pack of rollerball pens 89p. A Crayola 20-pencil colour set is not cheap at Pounds 5.99, but Woolworth's own brand is much better at Pounds 1.99 for 30 colouring pencils and 99p for 10. Felt-tip colouring pens are not loved by teachers (they stain clothing, they run out when you leave the tops off them) but 20 in non-toxic, washable ink and a reusable wallet are not a bad buy for Pounds 1.20.
Down the road at W H Smith, you have until September 9 to take advantage of its new term offers. Here, 12 HB pencils with rubber tips are Pounds 1. 25 and coloured rollerball writing pens are Pounds 1.99 (buy one, get one free). Best buy here is the Parker Frontier fountain pen which usually retails at Pounds 9.49 and is now Pounds 5.99. This is a gloriously stylish implement which can use cartridges or bottled ink. It has a transparent central barrel, is available in a variety of deep colours and comes with a case and a cartridge. Cheap fountain pens start with a school cartridge pen with two cartridges at 99p, which comes in a psychedelic combination of pink, green and yellow. Safeways supermarket also has a businesslike Parker Vector for Pounds 4. 99.
The Post Office can't rival the likes of W H Smith for variety, but it does have some attract-ive offers: eight plastic jumbo crayons for 99p; rollerball pens at 59p each; and a retractable four-colour ball-point pen at Pounds 1.02.
Educational supplies by catalogue are more usually for bulk purchases from schools and colleges. But there are also plenty of bargain buys for individuals. A box of 12 Staedler HB Noris pencils with rubber tips is just Pounds 1.95 at Hope, while NES Arnold has a pack of three Pentel fluorescent slimline rollerball pens in bright colours (purple, pink, yellow) for Pounds 2.20. There's a budget first fountain pen at Pounds 1.04 and a pack of 12 disposable fountain pens, with nibs that adjust to individual writing styles, for Pounds 11.85. A pack of 12 colouring pencils is 85p, while chunky triangular pencils to encourage good handwriting cost Pounds 4.95 for 12. Cheapest of all is a pack of 12 school pencils for 90p.
Pencil cases and tins are pretty much of a muchness wherever you go, but Woolworth's has a shrewd choice of decorations, from Winnie the Pooh for the new arrivals, through Jurassic Park and Boyzone, to an arty MTV range for the classroom grandees. Prices are from Pounds 1.69 to Pounds 1.79.
Many stores offer boxed or packaged sets, which usually include pens and pencils, rubbers and sharpeners in various combinations. But if you want a set, be selective and make sure that everything in it is likely to be used.
For those after a geometry set with a difference, W H Smith has a pack of multi-coloured angles (six-inch orange ruler, orange and blue set squares and yellow protractor) for Pounds 1.25, and a more serious version containing ruler, compass, pencil, set squares, eraser and sharpener for 99p. Woolworth's has a multi-coloured starter kit for younger children, which includes a wacky calculator, pen, pencils, ruler and sharpener at Pounds 3.99; a geometry set at 69p; and a maths set (ruler, sharpener, pencil, set square, compass and protractor) at 99p. It also has a non-age-specific Tortoise pen set, which includes pencil, ballpoint and cartridge pens, eraser, sharpener and three cartridges, at Pounds 3.99. From the Post Office, there's a lively children's pencil pack, containing six-inch ruler, yellow rubber, red double sharpener and two colourful pencils, at Pounds 1.29.
Students usually start to buy their own file paper or notebooks by GCSE and A-level. For them, cheap supplies are especially important. W H Smith has 160-sheet pads of wide-ruled A4 at 89p and 220-sheet pads at only 99p. A pack of three reporter's notebooks (wide ruled, 80 sheets per book) is Pounds 1, as is a pack of four exercise books. At Woolworth's most writing pads (wide-ruled, narrow-ruled, recycled and so on) are 99p. But if you want to trade up to designer stationery, there's a black and white fur-effect A4 ruled pad at Pounds 1.29. At the Post Office you can get notebooks from as little as 55p.
Subject dividers start at 69p for five A4 at Woolworth's; W H Smith has 10 in national curriculum colours for Pounds 1.85.
Students begin to buy their own files at about the same time that they become slaves to fashion. Stationers have smartly realised that it is not enough just to offer a hardboard thing to hold your notes - it has to hold your notes and make a fashion statement. W H Smith now has the Diesel label (normally to be found on jeans) and the massively hip Cat design (as in Caterpillar boots) on files, notebooks, pencil tins and wallets. NES Arnold has the Karnival range of designer files in eye-belting colours such as cobalt blue, yellow, orange, violet and emerald, although at Pounds 11.95 for 10 you might need to buy a job lot among students. There are lever-arch versions for Pounds 1.60 each and box files are Pounds 3.95 each. But if you are after something plain and simple, Hope has ring binders for 85p each and W H Smith has an A4 ringbinder set, which includes a ringbinder in either yellow, blue or orange, an A4 pad and five subject dividers, for just Pounds 2.50.
Must-haves for the new-to-fountain-pens are Smith's ink iradicators (looks like a pen, erase at one end, correct with the other) at four for 99p. Tipp-Ex is usually on sale in bulk from the catalogues. NES Arnold offers 10 anti-solvent bottles for Pounds 6.85. Hope has 10 for Pounds 8.25 but its own brand correcting fluid is much cheaper at Pounds 4.99 for a pack of 10.
In one of the strangest marketing initiatives, mail order company Neat Ideas offers various inducements to buy its merchandise. A free, cuddly cow comes with every 10 bottles of Tipp-Ex (Pounds 5.90) and a free pink pig with a 10-pack of Stabilo Boss highlighters. A pack of 12 three-inch by five-inch Tipp-Ex post-it notes costs Pounds 6.49 and comes with a Body Shop pack of aloe hair gel, vanilla bath and shower gel and marmalade scrub. If your order is worth more than Pounds 34.99 you get a free handbag - and if it is more than Pounds 100, you get a box of biscuits hand-baked in Yorkshire.
For style junkies Hope has a selection of minimalist accessories which would do Conran proud. These include slate grey plastic clip boards at Pounds 1.45 each; Klever Klips which come in all colours and resemble futuristic clothes pegs but which are really jumped-up paper clips.
With NES Arnold's portfolios, you can look like the director of an advertising agency. These store and carry finished work and are made from tough, black corrugated plastic, with red handles and clips. A3 models cost Pounds 5. 95 each; A2 and A1 versions cost Pounds 11.95 and Pounds 14.95 respectively.
If the thought of a new school year is already too much, NES Arnold has some motivational "Expressions Stamps" in pinks, purples and lime greens. These offer mild exhortations and encouragement from "Keep it up" to "Work faster", "Oops" or "Wow" at Pounds 1.99 each. Further proof that new school terms need not be just grey serge and chalkdust.
Additional research by Tracey Warren Hope Education: 0161 633 6611
NES Arnold: 01139 452200
Neat Ideas: 0800 500192