School shoes compared

Does price matter when it comes to school shoes and quality?

A lesson on school shoes

When it comes to school shoes, parents can be left bamboozled. Why are some so expensive? Are the cheaper ones OK? Buckles, Velcro or laces? And how can my child wear their shoes out so quickly? 

It's a dilemma kids and their carers have each year (and sometimes more than once a year if their feet have a growth spurt). And in the January back-to-school frenzy a wide variety of shoes marketed as school-suitable can range from as little as $15 to over $130. Of course, if you've left it to the last minute, some stores may have heavily discounted stock so you could end up with a bargain.

Video: See how we test school shoes

So why are school shoes important anyway?

A firm, supportive shoe is critical for young children as the bones in their feet don't fuse together until they hit puberty. A young foot is a flexible foot that can be prone to hypermobility and lacks muscle strength. As a result, a supportive shoe is necessary.

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

The fit is the thing

Kids' feet grow quickly and can also change in shape. So it's important to check your child's feet and footwear regularly for fit.

As a rule, it's recommended to do 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

Some footwear stores offer a shoe fitting service, which our experts suggest using if you can. If this isn't an option, check how the shoes fit your child and how they walk in them before you buy.

Fit tips

  • Always have both feet measured for length.
  • Toes shouldn't touch the end of the shoe. The ideal gap is approximately half a thumb width from the end of the longest toe to the end of the shoe.
  • Check the shoes are both wide and deep enough – if you can see the outline of the foot squashed up against the shoe then it's not right.
  • Shoes should feel comfortable immediately and there shouldn't be any pressure points or pain at all.
  • Shop for shoes in the afternoon as feet tend to swell throughout the day.

'They'll grow into them'

While it might be tempting to buy a larger size your child can "grow into", when it comes to shoes this is a no-go. Properly fitting footwear is critical to support and protect vulnerable and growing feet.

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What to look for

"The best kind of school shoes should be supportive, durable and comfortable with a good gripping sole," says Bodell. Here are some specifics to 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 allows the wearer to "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.
  • Heels. A good school shoe will have a small heel. While this may sound counterintuitive, a low heel keeps the foot in a neutral position (unlike an entirely flat shoe, which can cause 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 the "toe box" (the void at the end of the shoe) is deep and has enough wiggle room for toes.
  • Leather uppers last longer and allow feet to breathe.
  • The sock liner or insole should be soft and comfortable, made of an absorbent fabric to reduce sweating and be easily removed (should 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?

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.

For example: 

  • Higher-quality shoes tend to be stitched instead of glued.
  • Cheaper shoes often have cardboard for the last ('last' usually refers to a shoemaker's mold, but here it means 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.

Popular brands compared

we cut open a shoe

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. While this isn't an exhaustive test of what's available, we wanted to gain 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 had one shoe from each pair cut from toe to heel to see the internal elements that make up each shoe. The shoes were then assessed by podiatry experts McArthur and Bodell.

Here's what they found:

Clarks – Daytona Senior

Price: $139.95

Clarks were referred to as a 'gold standard' shoe by both our experts. While certainly not cheap, the shoes were assessed as being very good quality as well as coming in a range of widths and lengths.

Good points
  • Both experts commented on the firm heel cup (also called a heel counter) at the back of the shoe. As well as being supportive, it's padded and contoured to ensure a good fit.
  • The toe box is deep and roomy while the toe cap (the area at the tip of the toe box) is firm to protect little toes.
  • The shoe is lined with suede to reduce sweating and the sock liner (or insole) is soft, supportive and easily removed should you need to use an orthotic.
  • The shoe has a sturdy last.
  • A steel shank runs from the heel to the midfoot to prevent that part of the shoe bending.
  • Solid sole.
  • Good heel height.
Bad points
  • Expensive – particularly if you have a child with fast-growing feet whose shoes will need to be replaced after six months.
  • McArthur felt the tread may wear down easily compared to some of the other shoes as it didn't run very deeply on the sole.

ROC – Larrikin

Price: $119

Good points
  • A steel shank runs from the heel to the midfoot to prevent the back of the shoe bending.
  • Has a sturdy last.
  • Good heel height.
  • Fairly lightweight.
Bad points
  • The heel cup isn't very sturdy, which means it's less likely to hold the heel steady.
  • The sock liner is made out of a synthetic fabric so won't breathe as well.
  • Bodell describes the sole as 'blown out', meaning there are air pockets inside the sole. While these can provide cushioning and create a lighter shoe, they also make the soles wear out and sink down more easily.

Lynx – Arrow

Price: $79.95 (we paid $59.95 on sale)

Good points
  • Firm and sturdy heel cup.
  • A steel shank runs from the heel to the midfoot to prevent the back of the shoe bending.
  • Deep toe box.
  • Removable sock liner.
  • Suitable heel height.
Bad points
  • The last is made of cardboard which will degrade quicker than other materials – especially if the shoe gets wet.
  • The soles are 'blown out' (have air pockets), which means the shoes may wear out more quickly.
  • The sock liner is synthetic so won't breathe as well.

Other comments: "A reasonably good shoe for the price."

Grosby – leather lace-up boys shoes

Price: $35

Good points
  • Deep tread on the soles.
Bad points
  • No steel shank for support.
  • The last is made of cardboard which will degrade quicker than other materials – especially if the shoe gets wet.
  • Quite heavy.
  • The sock liner is synthetic so won't breathe as well.
  • Flimsy heel cup (heel counter).
  • The soles are 'blown out' (have air pockets), which means the shoes may wear out more quickly.
  • Despite a chunky appearance, the soles are too spongey and soft.
  • The top of the shoe is quite wide and won't fit a child with a narrow foot.

Target – Eton Grad lace-up school shoes

Price: $35

Good points
  • Lighter than other brands.
  • Good heel height.
Bad points
  • Too flexible and soft all over.
  • The soles are 'blown out' (have air pockets), which means the shoes may wear out more quickly.
  • No steel shank.
  • The last is made of cardboard and is flimsy – which will degrade quickly if the shoe gets wet.
  • The sock liner is synthetic so won't breathe as well.

The verdict

While our experts agreed the Clarks shoes were the best out of those assessed, 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."

What about trainers?

Both our experts were unanimous in their opinion that trainers (runners) are an excellent option for school children if the uniform policy allows them. As long as the trainer isn't designed to be a super flexible shoe (like a Nike Free), then a quality training or sports shoe has the advantage of being very supportive and light as well as holding the foot stable.

Bodell says the only downside is that many trainers have a mesh upper which can wear out quicker than a leather shoe, yet often cost just as much. But she says more running shoes are being made for school children with a black leather upper, which will wear much better.

When is it time for new shoes?

  • Check where your child's toes are – when they're 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.
  • If there are holes in the toes or the heels are worn down badly.

Shoe clues – spotting problems with your child's feet

A school shoe can indicate if your child is having issues with their gait or their feet that may need to be looked at 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 the foot and may need orthotics.
  • If the big toe is coming through the top of the shoe, your child may be hyper-extending their toes as there isn't enough arch support.

If a laptop is on your back-to-school shopping list, our laptop reviews will help you make sense of the options and find the best device to suit your child's needs.

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