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Best school shoes 2021: Comfy, smart and long-lasting shoes for kids

Martha Alexander
31 Aug 2021
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Time for a new pair of school shoes? Make your sure your kids’ feet are ready for the new school term with our handy buying guide

If ever there was a rite of passage, it’s the trip to buy new school shoes before the autumn term starts. The foot measuring machine with its sliding mechanism and the smell of new leather go hand in hand with new beginnings.

School shoes have to tick a lot of boxes. Firstly, they must adhere to uniform regulations (almost always involving a combination of the following words ‘flat’, ‘black’, ‘polishable’). Secondly, they must be built to last as they’ll be worn all day every day, often to walk to school and during every playtime. Lastly, and most importantly they must be comfortable and supportive for growing feet.

There are plenty of budget options available when it comes to school shoes and while saving the pennies is always a boon, this is one area where you really do get what you pay for. On the whole, cheaper shoes are less kind to growing feet and tend to fall apart fairly quickly. This is why there aren’t any super cheap shoes in this roundup.

How to choose the best school shoes for your kids

How do you know if they fit properly?

Ideally, we’d recommend getting your kids’ feet measured at a shoe shop but there are other options. You can buy your own foot measuring tools online from brands such as Clarks or Start-Rite, or alternatively there are some free options. For instance, it’s also possible to download a PDF of a paper measuring gauge which you can print at home. You need to make sure to follow the instructions closely though, as printing the gauge incorrectly will render the measurements useless – it’s essential that it prints out at exactly the right size. Check out Start-Rite’s guide here if you want to peruse the various options.

When buying or fitting shoes yourself, a general rule of thumb is that there should be about half a centimetre of space at the toes. There should be no reports of tightness anywhere. That said, proper leather shoes are likely to feel stiff at first – this is to be expected and the best thing to do is get your child to spend some time wearing the shoes around the house before they head back to school.

Also, bear in mind that some shoes come in European sizes rather than the UK sizing equivalent. European sizes are prefaced with an E (e.g. E31), while UK sizes are sometimes prefaced with an S for small sizes or L for large sizes. If you want a rough idea how to compare the two sizing schemes, then check out the comparison tables on Start-Rite’s site here.

How thick/thin is the sole?

This matters because thin soles are unlikely to provide ample warmth or shock-absorbing comfort, and are also likely to wear away quickly. Anything too thick and little legs might find them too heavy to move about easily in.

How kinds of fasteners do the shoes use?

It’s all well and good cooing over smart lace ups or slick buckles, but if your little one hasn’t mastered such methods every day is going to be a frustrating battle for them. Smaller children would be best with slip-ons or Velcro-style fasteners (nb. these are referred to interchangeably as hook-and-loop, touch-and-close or riptape fasteners as Velcro is a brand and registered trademark).

How easy are they to clean?

Some shoes can be wiped clean, which is ideal for frazzled parents, but leather shoes will need a little more TLC, namely a daily polish. This isn’t as arduous as you might expect – it really doesn’t take long to quickly buff up a shoe with a suitable brush and a dab of polish – but it will need to be factored into your routine as scuffed leather quickly begins to look ropey, and regular polishing can help to protect the shoes, too.

READ NEXT: The best school bags for primary and secondary school

The best school shoes to buy in 2021

1. Start-Rite Imagine T-Bar: Best classic school shoes for girls

Price: £58 | Buy now from Start-Rite

With a classic T-bar design and brogue punch-hole detailing, these leather shoes hark to yesteryear while delivering contemporary style thanks to the thick, deeply-grooved sole.

If you’re wondering about the weight – fear not, as despite the chunkiness they’re lightweight and malleable when worn. Our six-year-old tester loved running around with the Imagines on and even asked if she could wear them on weekends.

The padded area around the ankles provides support and comfort, and the buckle fastens securely – all told, we can see these withstanding a whole lot of wear and tear. The only downside is that these aren’t available for younger/smaller children, starting at an E31 (equivalent to a UK S12.5).

Key specs – Sizes: E31 to E41, two widths to choose from; Material: Leather; Colours/finishes available: 2 (black, patent); Fastening: Buckle

Buy now from Start-Rite


2. Next Black leather double strap: Best cheap school shoes for girls and boys

Price: From £26 | Buy now from Next

For under £30, these leather school shoes are an absolute bargain. Next’s dedicated footwear experts designed these shoes to ensure growing feet are kept healthy and safe – and this is evident in the padded collar and overall design.

The double strap makes these shoes really supportive and secure while also being easy for little ones to take on and off themselves. The slightly sporty, trainer-like styling looks great, too, and is likely to be a hit with little ones who aren’t keen on more traditional school shoe designs.

At this kind of price, Next has done a great job of making a great, all round shoe that ticks all the boxes.

Key specs – Sizes: E26 to E41; Material: Leather; Colours/finishes available: 1 (black), patent); Fastening: Touch-and-close

Buy now from Next


3. Start-Rite Engineer: Best all-round school shoe for boys

Price: £45 | Buy now from Start-Rite

The Engineer is a tough, classic leather shoe for boys. The cut is a little smarter than more trainer-influenced designs, and the materials and design have comfort and hard-knock durability firmly in mind.

The riptape fasteners make it easy for younger kids to get the shoes on and off, while protection around the toe, heel and sides, and an absorbent leather lining keep little feet safe and comfy.

Reassuringly, this shoe is designed to take all the punishment that little feet can dish out: the reinforced toe and heel go hand in hand with a sole that’s been tested to survive 50,000 bends and stretches, which bodes well for longevity.

Key specs – Sizes: E27 to E36, four widths to choose from; Material: Leather; Colours/finishes available: 2 (black, brown); Fastening: Rip tape

Buy now from Start-Rite


4. Kickers T-Bar Kicks: Best girl’s shoes for durability

Price: £45 | Buy now from Kickers

While the word iconic is overused, Kickers is a cult brand that fully deserves the label. Easily recognisable thanks to their green and red tabs and sole detailing, Kickers are synonymous with comfort and easy-going style.

The T-bar Kicks are a brilliant choice for primary school girls – they’re sturdy and tough, the thick soles offer maximum grip and stability, and the thick triple stitching inspires confidence. There is plenty of padding around the heels and inside the shoes themselves, too.

Our tester reported feeling that the shoes felt ‘high up’ but any ambivalence about the chunky sole evaporated when she realised how comfortable they were – not to mention easy to run around in.

Key specs – Sizes: (UK5 to UK12); Material: Leather; Colours/finishes available: 1 (black); Fastening: Buckle

Buy now from Kickers


5. Bobux Quest: Best girl’s school shoe for comfort

Price: £59 | Buy now from Bobux

New Zealand brand Bobux has been taking care of children’s feet for some 30 years – comfort and foot health is a key component of all its shoes and boots. Their school shoe range is no different, boasting premium leather as well as the brand’s unique sole design.

The Quest is packed with great design features. The herringbone wave pattern across the sole claims to enhance grip and follow the foot’s natural movement, and the zero-drop design promotes healthy foot development by keeping the foot level and mimicking how the feet move when unshod.

The strap fastening is easy for younger children to get the hang of but also allows for adjustment and movement as the foot develops. The shoes feel wonderfully soft and pliable inside and out, and you can feel the quality before you’ve even put the shoes on your child. Our tester reported that these didn’t exhibit the usual new shoe stiffness and felt like they’d already been worn in.

Crucially, the protective leather coating on the heel and the toes helps to prevent nasty scuffs from developing – so you may not have to polish these quite as often as cheaper rivals.

Key specs – Sizes: E27 to E33; Material: Leather; Colours/finishes available: 1 (black), patent); Fastening: Velcro

Buy now from Bobux


6. Kickers Fragma Twin Vel: Best boy's school shoe for retro cool

Price: £55 | Buy now from Kickers

Little kids won’t care one jot about Kickers’ decades-long heritage of retro cool footwear, but they’ll love the Fragma Twin Vel for its looks and comfort all the same.

The padded collar and absorbent mesh lining provide a balance of comfort and breathability, and the TPR sole combines grip with ample shock absorption.

Whether you’re buying for a little preschooler or a fashion-conscious teen, the Fragma Twin Vel comes in Infant, Junior and Teen versions which span a wide range of foot sizes. It’s a shame there are no width options, though, so it may not suit every foot shape.

It’s a lovely looking little shoe, and fans of the brand will appreciate the squared-off moccasin-style design and understated red and green detailing on each shoe. Definitely one for the mini-fashionistas.

Key specs – Sizes: Infant (S5 to S12), Junior (S12.5 to L2.5), Teen (L3 to L6); Material: Leather; Colours/finishes available: 1 (black), patent); Fastening: Hook and loop

Buy now from Kickers


7. Clarks Scala Lace: Best lace up school shoes for girls

Price: £46 | Buy now from Clarks

These smart, stylish lace-up shoes are perfect for older kids. As long as your (not so) little ones have mastered tying their own laces, that is.

Impressively, Clarks caters for a vast range of different sizes – there are four different widths to choose from, too, to ensure a perfect fit. We’d strongly recommend getting fitted at a Clarks store or buying a proper foot measuring gauge, though.

The dainty profile and elegant design are a delight, and the rubber sole has a very slight heel for support as well as shallow grooves for grip. The lining is made from Agion – a substance which helps to keep feet feeling and smelling fresh after long, busy days – and the construction feels tough and built to last.

These were an absolute dream from the word go. Despite being made from leather they weren’t stiff and unyielding – our tester found them immediately comfortable. For style and foot-friendly comfort, these are hard to beat.

Key specs – Sizes: UK S13 to UK L9 including half sizes), 4 different widths; Material: Leather; Colours/finishes available: 2 (black, patent); Fastening: Laces

Buy now from Clarks


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