Send your kids back to class in style with one of the best bags for primary and secondary school
September is apples, the smell of freshly sharpened pencils and the packing of school bags. It’s a time of freshness and potential, which is why so many children want new classroom gear.
The best school bags will need to do lots of hard work these days: they need to carry water bottles, books, often laptops, pencil cases and maybe even lunchboxes. Some schools require understated colours to match the uniform, while others want students to have anything that is practical.
We think backpacks are the way to go when it comes to school bags. Sure, satchels are the retro choice and have their place but they are more difficult to carry, especially for younger children, and they’re not as good for growing backs, tending to put pressure on one side of the body only. With this in mind, the bags in this roundup are backpacks, with choices for everyone from reception class newcomers to teenagers with crammed timetables.
Best school bag for primary and secondary school: At a glance
- Best for older children: Fjällräven Tree-Kånken | Buy now
- Best for durability: The Portrait Backpack | Buy now
- Best for machine-washing: Minecraft Water Repellent Backpack | Buy now
- Best eco choice: Nobodinoz Sunshine Kids Backpack | Buy now
- Best for small children: Cookie the Cat Mini Backpack | Buy now
How to choose the best school bag for your primary or secondary school child
What does it look like?
Whether a school has a strict uniform policy or not, having a neat backpack that your child is going to enjoy using is really important. Starting each day feeling well turned out really does put everyone in the right frame of mind for a day’s learning. School bags should be clean, tidy and without too many buckles, clips or straps, although hidden compartments for money or phones or dedicated pockets for water bottles are hugely helpful.
Is it comfortable?
No matter how young or old a child is, comfort is always king. Does the bag feel good to wear? Does it dig into your shoulders? When it’s full, is it too heavy? Do you feel the straps straining? Are they wide enough to bear a decent amount of weight? When filled, is the weight of the bag evenly spread about? These are all questions we asked when testing the bags in this roundup.
READ NEXT: These are the best laptop bags you can buy
What does it need to fit in it?
While younger children might not have heaps of homework or laptops to tote about, they could have water, reading books and food to consider. Besides, having their own bag is an essential part of development, encouraging them to start taking responsibility for their things, which is great for their sense of autonomy.
Older children will have more things, including heavier books and possibly a laptop, and it all adds up. A decent school bag will fit all this in easily – without a daily battle with straining zips and buckles.
Is it durable?
A school bag should be built to last at least the entire academic year. Younger children especially tend to put their bags through all sorts of torture, including dumping them in puddles and dragging them across the playground.
Finding a bag made from thick, sturdy material with well-fortified zippers and joins is essential.
The best school bags for primary and secondary school to buy in 2023
1. Tree-Kånken: Best for older children
Price: £120 | Buy now from Fjällräven
Launched in 1978 as a means of helping Swedish schoolchildren from developing back problems, the Kanken is a cult product across the world, worn by children and adults alike, who love it for its comfort. The straps are thin, but carefully positioned and there’s a top handle for carrying by hand if necessary. The back panel has an internal pocket containing a thick pad that stops the contents of the bag from digging into the wearer’s back.
The Tree Kanken is brand new and it’s much like the original in that it has a really simple, attractive aesthetic: it’s essentially just one main space that can easily fit a large lunch box, a water bottle, a laptop, pencil case and a couple of books. The front has a hidden pocket which is ideal for money, a phone or keys, and should make wearing it on the bus or train that bit more free of stress. The Tree Kanken comes in four muted shades, but the wider range boasts a kaleidoscope of colour options.
There are smaller versions of the Kanken available for younger children, but from age eight and upwards the adult size is best.
We loved that it was both water-resistant and quick-drying – perfect for UK schoolchildren.
Key details – Material: 100% Vinyl; Compartments: 2; Sizes available: 1; Dimensions (HWD): 38 x 27 x 13cm
2. The Portrait Backpack: The best for durability
Price: £215 | Buy now from Cambridge Satchel Company
This is hardly a budget buy, but let us explain why this bag, perfect for older children, is worth the investment. It’s built to last not just a year, but all the way through secondary school, into college and beyond. We’d go as far as to say this will get better with age, as the leather softens.
It’s also really smart – luxurious leather and stellar craftsmanship – so we can’t see a uniform policy taking issue with such a bag. Doing up with buckles rather than the more modern zipper, this not only has room for a 13in laptop inside, but the sturdy structure of the leather actually helps to protect it from life’s inevitable daily bangs and bumps.
This makes for a great gift, not least because it comes in its own cloth dust bag which is a really chic, grown-up touch, as is the initial engraving option available. Brilliant for smart students who will find it gets better with age.
Key details – Material: Leather; Compartments: 2; Sizes available: 2; Dimensions (HWD): 35 x 26 x 9cm
3. Minecraft Water Repellent School Backpack: The best for machine washing
Price: £24 | Buy now from Marks & SpencerFans of Minecraft will love having this on their backs. It’s a large, light backpack with thick padded straps and a padded back panel. For storage, the bag has one main compartment that can accommodate A4 pads, as well as a lunchbox and pencil case. There are further compartments, including on the front and one inside, as well as one on the side for water bottles.
Thanks to the water-resistant finish, rainy days and wet playgrounds aren’t going to be much of a threat to the contents. We also love that this is machine washable without any damage – no colour bleed, no shrinking and with no obvious wear and tear. You can stick it in the wash at the end of every school week to make Mondays as fresh and clean as possible.
Key details – Material: Polyester, polypropylene, rubber and polyethylene; Compartments: 4; Sizes available: 1; Dimensions (HWD): 40 x 28 x 13cm
4. Cookie The Cat Mini Backpack: The best for small children
Price: £20 | Buy now from Rex London
For children in nursery, pre-school or in their first couple of years of “big” (primary) school, a smaller bag is probably going to be sufficient for their needs – water, snacks and a small packed lunch. We love the range of mini backpacks at Rex – especially Cookie the Cat – because they’re light, inexpensive and won’t weigh little ones down. The shoulder straps are padded and adjustable, and you’ll find the front pocket is the perfect place for secret treasures.
Key details – Material: Polyester; Compartments: 2; Sizes available: 2; Dimensions (HWD): 25 x 21 x 10cm
5. Nobodinoz Sunshine Kids Backpack: The best eco choice
Price: £34 | Buy now from Smallable
This is the perfect eco-friendly choice for children aged between five and 10 years old, thanks to its organic cotton, pesticide-free manufacturing process. This backpack is light and easy to carry with wide straps (plus an extra handle). Its scandi aesthetic is beautifully simple, too.
The bag has a water-repellent coating, which is pretty much essential for a child navigating the British weather en route to school.
We managed to fit a large water bottle, a lunchbox, two books and a pair of trainers into this bag. A smaller option is available for pre-schoolers.
Key details – Material: Organic cotton twill; Compartments: 2; Sizes available: 2; Dimensions (HWD): 30 x 24 x 10cm