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How to choose the right school shoes for your kids

Why are some so expensive? Are the cheaper ones OK? Buckles, Velcro or laces? And why-in-the-name-of-all-that's-holy do my kids wear them out so quickly? In the January back-to-school frenzy, you'll find 'school-suitable' shoes from as little as $15 to more than $130. So how do you know which ones to choose?

When you’re back-to-school shopping, one of the most exciting school supplies to check off is that new pair of school shoes! Most kids would select a pair of school shoes purely based on style, while parents would cite comfort and cost as paramount, plus a shoe that looks smart. But that isn’t all you need to think about when choosing your children’s school shoes.

Why is it so important for school shoes to fit properly?

Dozens of parents from a Brisbane high school have taken to social media to vent their anger about new uniform requirements that could see their children sent to detention for having the wrong-sized heel on their black leather school shoes.

Since they'll be worn for hours at a time, the fit of a new pair of school shoes is vital but can be difficult to ensure when dealing with finicky children.

Six steps to make sure your kids' shoes fit

"A good school shoe provides a stable home for immature bones," says Charlotte Bodell, a podiatrist and spokesperson for the Australian Podiatry Association.

Kids' feet can lack muscle strength and be prone to hypermobility, so firm, supportive shoes help protect their feet while they're growing. Because bones in young children's feet don't fuse together until puberty.

"Without that support, children are in danger of developing flat feet, sore knees, shin splints and even back pain. A good shoe that fits properly is important."

Kids' feet grow quickly and can change shape as well as size. Experts recommend doing a size check at these intervals:

  • One to three months up to the age of three.
  • Every four months up to the age of five.
  • Every six months until your child stops growing completely.

What to look for

The good school shoes is a pair that you buy in late summer that will last long with your child a whole school year. Unfortunately, some children’s feet will grow quicker than that and you’ll be forced to buy a new pair within the school year, which is frustrating but not as annoying as a pair of school shoes that still fit but can’t be worn – as the sole is falling off or they have a hole in them.

When is it time for new shoes?

  • When toes are touching the end it's time to size up.
  • When the tread on the bottom of the shoe has worn away, as they can be too slippery.
  • Lots of wear on the side or scuff marks may mean the shoe is too tight.
  • When there are holes in the toes, or the heels are worn down badly.

So, durability is super important, especially with younger kids who are generally running around a lot, and use their shoes for kicking balls, even walls.

"The best kind of school shoes should be supportive, durable and comfortable with a good gripping sole"

School shoes also need to be waterproof and have good grip. Scuff protection is a good feature and younger kids who can’t do up their laces or buckles will need Velcro or Riptape straps or slip on shoes, so they can easily take them on and off.

We look for sturdy material at the ankle, for support and so the shoe doesn’t get destroyed if they’re prone to slipping the shoe on without undoing the laces or straps.

And of course, the shoes need to be comfortable, ideally from the off, though some shoes will need a little wearing in at home, so they feel good on kids’ feet by the time school starts.

Here's what you should look for:

  • Flexibility in the front. Pick up the shoe and try to bend it by pushing the toe upwards. A good shoe will bend at the ball of the foot but no further. This helps your child 'push off' with their toes while keeping the back half of their foot stable and secure.
  • ...but not too much flexibility. Shoes that bend all over or are easily twisted don't provide enough support.
  • A good school shoe will have a small heel. While this may sound counterintuitive, a low heel keeps your child's foot in a neutral position. An entirely flat shoe can cause your child's toes to 'claw' when walking.
  • Not too heavy. Heavy shoes can mean muscle pain and foot aches, especially for little people.
  • Plenty of toe room. Check that your child can wiggle their toes and that the 'toe box' (the empty space at the end of the shoe) is deep.
  • Leather uppers last longer and allow your child's feet to breathe.
  • The sock liner or insole should be soft, comfortable and made of an absorbent fabric to reduce sweating. You should be able to remove it easily, in case you need to replace it with an orthotic.
  • Shoe laces, buckles and Velcro are all equally good, but avoid slip-on shoes that can't be adjusted.

Does price matter?

It is very easy to find the shoes from online and, brick and mortar store; their distribution is global considering that the demand is growing each day despite the emerging competition from other equally powerful competitors some of whom are imitating the quality and offer lower prices.

Kate McArthur, director of City Feet Clinic and a podiatrist with a background in shoe analysis and fitting, says shoes are made differently and with different materials depending on their cost.

So what does the extra money buy you?

  • Higher quality shoes tend to be stitched instead of glued.
  • Cheaper shoes often have cardboard for the last (the piece that runs through the sole of the shoe to help hold its shape), while more expensive shoes may use a harder wearing polyurethane material.
  • Better made shoes will also have well-padded lining made from breathable fabrics and use less synthetics.
  • The soles of some shoes may be 'blown out', which means there are air pockets inside the sole. Blown out soles can provide cushioning a create a lighter shoe, but they can also make the soles wear out and sink down more easily.

Popular brands compared

With such a wide variety of school shoes on offer at very different price points, it can be confusing to work out which shoes are best for your child and your budget. So we've taken a closer look at a handful of popular shoes. 

This is by no means an exhaustive test of what's on the market, but it will give you some insight into what you get for your money.

We bought five pairs of classic black lace-up school shoes ranging in price from $35 to $139.95 to see what the differences were. 

We cut each shoe from toe to heel and asked podiatry experts McArthur and Bodell to assess them.

The verdict

We’ve tried to keep these reviews as gender neutral as possible to accommodate all kids and their style and practicality needs, whether it be for football or fashion.

Both our experts called the Clarks shoes the 'gold standard' and agreed they were the best of the bunch, being very good quality and coming in a range of widths and lengths.

However, both commented on the high price. This is something to consider if your child's feet are growing quickly and you may need to go up a size before the shoe wears out.

Bodell thought the Lynx shoes were a good product for a good price, and rated both the Target and Grosby shoes as poor.

McArthur also rated the Grosby shoes as poor, but said the Target shoes could be an option if your child's feet are going through a growth spurt, meaning wear and tear is unlikely to be an issue.

"They aren't great, but they'd be OK if your child is only wearing them for a few months as a budget option," she says.

The shoes were tested on children about to start year 1, 4 and 6 and we’ve only featured black shoes as that seems to be the regulation in most US schools.

Lastly, make sure you label your kids’ shoes, you’d be surprised how many children will have the same or similar looking pairs. Going back to school has never looked better with this classic 3-stripe brand.

Lots of updates for this school year include exciting sock-fit styles, slip-on sneakers with cool knit materials and bootie construction that can be worn with or without socks.

Even if your kids wear a uniform for their everyday school attire, we can help you out with all-black, all-white or brown uniform shoes for kids to suit the school dress code.

Shoe clues – spotting problems with your child's feet

A school shoe can indicate if your child is having issues with their gait or if they need to be assessed by a podiatrist. Here are some things to watch out for:

  • If the shoe is worn down unevenly, this could mean your child has a mechanical imbalance in their foot and may need orthotics.
  • If your child's big toe is coming through the top of the shoe, they could be hyper-extending their toes as there isn't enough arch support.

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