Researching which school shoes to buy can leave parents feeling like they're failing at comprehension. 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?
It's an annual dilemma for parents of school-aged kids (and sometimes a bi-annual dilemma if the kids have a growth spurt) – and it can be a costly decision to get wrong. We surveyed CHOICE staff and members in late 2020/early 2021 and the majority of respondents said that, for primary school kids, the most expensive back to school item was shoes.
So how do you know which ones to choose?
CHOICE doesn't usually do things by halves. This time we did.
The bones in young children's feet don't fuse together until puberty. Kids' feet can lack muscle strength and be prone to hypermobility, so firm, supportive shoes help protect their feet while they're growing.
"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."
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.
Anatomy of a school shoe.
"The best kind of school shoes should be supportive, durable and comfortable with a good gripping sole," says Bodell.
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.
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.
After being tested in the field by children, 100 pairs of well-used school shoes are sent to CHOICE labs for evaluation. Credit: National Film & Sound Archive of Australia.
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.
Shoes are made differently and with different materials, depending on their cost, according to Kate McArthur, director of City Feet Clinic and a podiatrist with a background in shoe analysis and fitting.
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.
We cut each school shoe from toe to heel.
In 2018, we decided to get a closer look at what you get for your money.
We bought five pairs of classic black lace-up school shoes, ranging in price from cheap to expensive:
- Grosby leather lace-up boys shoes (2018 model, RRP $35)
- Target Eton Grad lace-up school shoes (2018 model, RRP $35)
- Lynx Arrow (2018 model, now discontinued)
- ROC Larrikin (2018 model, RRP $129.95)
- Clarks Daytona Senior (2018 model, RRP $139.95)
We then cut each shoe from toe to heel and asked podiatry experts McArthur and Bodell to assess them and see what the differences were.
While the shoes we chose are no longer the latest models available in stores (and one pair has been discontinued) the results provide a useful guide of what to look for in a school shoe.
What we found
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.
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.