Pupils are being bent into uncomfortable positions by one-size-fits-all school furniture and it could be damaging them both physically and mentally, finds Simon Creasey. So, what can we do to tackle it?
Are you sitting comfortably? If so, lucky you, because apparently your pupils are not. You see, according to various experts on the workings of the body, we have a problem in this country. It’s a problem that is hindering the ability of thousands of children and young people in the UK to learn. It’s a problem that’s causing them physical pain. And it’s a problem that comes on four legs: the ill-fitting chairs and desks young people are forced to use in schools.
Like many European countries, the UK takes a one-size-fits-all approach to the procurement of school furniture. But, as you may have noticed, children don’t come in one size – they are all different shapes and their bodies mature at different rates.
What that means is that the uncommonly tall teenager who has enjoyed a significant growth spurt in the past 12 months may be given the same type of chair to sit on and the same sort of desk to work at as a student who is a good six inches shorter.
Four legs bad
You might argue that the chairs adults use tend to be one-size-fits-all, too, so what are we worried about? However, most adults don’t tend to sit in those chairs for six hours per day and, during office work that might require them to sit for long periods, they tend to have adjustable furniture.
Children aren’t granted that luxury. And experts from academics to osteopaths stress that this is doing untold damage, both physically and mentally. It may sound like a trivial thing, but having an ill-fitting chair or desk can be disastrous on a number of fronts.
The main issue is the potential for health problems. In its Safe Seats for Learning report, the Furniture Industry Research Association noted that children will typically spend 15,000 hours seated during their school years, and that the provision of ill-suited chairs and table sizes meant 13 per cent of pupils aged 10-16 were reporting significant recurrences of back pain. The report also noted that 10 per cent of teenagers had to visit a GP as a result of school furniture-related back pain, while 8 per cent reported some disability from chronic symptoms.
Although the report is more than 10 years old, industry experts say the figures are still relevant today. David Such, principal osteopath at David Such Osteopathy in Crawley and a clinic tutor at the University College of Osteopathy in London, confirms that over the past few years he’s seen an increasingly large number of patients in their early teens presenting to the clinic with back and neck pain.
“Classroom furniture is notorious for being badly proportioned and unadjustable,” he notes. “This will of course have a significant impact on their musculoskeletal health, as well as affecting their concentration levels and ability to focus, as they’re often uncomfortable.”
That will have an impact on learning, he says. His assertion is underlined by the findings of a report produced by academic Peter Barrett, who found that children whose schools scored higher on classroom environmental factors – including better furniture – showed an improvement in exam scores as high as 16 per cent.
On top of the research, there is a plethora of anecdotal evidence, be it from teachers, parents or children themselves. Adults sitting on tiny chairs during early years foundation stage parents’ evening is an extreme example, but the difference in size between some Year 7 and Year 11s can be almost as pronounced.
Unfortunately, though, none of this is a “smoking gun” that would justify putting non-adjustable furniture in the furnace. While we might think the furniture is doing damage, Michelle Bergin, an occupational therapist in Galway, says we don’t know for sure. She undertook a review of available research on this topic last year and ran a conference entitled 21st Century Schools: Inclusive, Flexible and Dynamic Learning Environments that looked at school furniture and the health and comfort of children. She says she’s seeing more children presenting with chronic pain, but feels that, to date, a conclusive causal link between ill-fitting school furniture and pain has not been established.
“The research has only said that children have reported more pain, and biomechanically the chairs are not promoting good posture and support, but we don’t have any RCTs [randomised controlled trials] saying that there’s a causation between sitting on a bad chair and an actual poor biomechanical result,” explains Bergin.
“There’s a lot of research that suggests it, but we should be very cautious about what the research actually says. And what the research does say is that sedentary behaviour – sitting for too long – has a negative impact. So, regardless of the chair, it’s actually the time spent sitting that’s the real issue.”
A painful back story
What we are sure of is that chair design for schools is a neglected issue. In 2011, the academic Jonathan Olivares published a study that found there had been at least 132 designs of office chairs since 1853. However, since the 1950s and the introduction of the polypropylene chair, furniture for educational settings has by and large remained consistent; a greater emphasis has been placed on things such as fire prevention and the stackability of chairs than comfort and posture.
So, together with the anecdotal and cursory evidence of a problem, we also have firm research that suggests the comfort of a child has never been a real consideration in classroom-furniture design. Rather, it seems to have been led by a motto akin to “If it stacks, we’ll ignore what it lacks”.
To be fair, designers have had their hands tied. For example, the current procurement system for classroom furniture is incredibly rigid. The primary product standard that determines sizing and offers guidance on different styles of chair used in schools was created using anthropometric data from five European countries to determine sizes of furniture in eight size marks. European standard BS EN 1729-1:2015 uses size specifications based on the average popliteal heights – the distance between the back of the knee and the sole of the foot when seated – at different age ranges. This means that schools buy furniture according to a child’s age rather than any other factor.
The issue is that, in any age group, a child’s size can differ by as much as 30cm and the general sizes of children’s bodies are changing rapidly owing to factors such as the incidence of obesity. The flaws of this approach were exposed in an academic study that found that only two out of 10 pupils in each classroom will actually find the mean popliteal height for their age to suit their posture. To address this variance, the BS EN 1729 standard encourages schools to source furniture that is adjustable, which is also more costly.
Still: a problem
This takes us to a second issue: budget. Schools now spend less on school furniture than they once did. According to the British Educational Suppliers Association’s (BESA) yearly report, Resources in English Maintained Schools, school-furniture spend decreased at an annual rate of just under 3 per cent between 2012 and 2019.
And if you think it’s bad now, then prepare for the situation to get worse in the future, cautions Murray Hudson, co-author of the book Planning Learning Spaces. He says the efficiency drive instigated by the government will ultimately result in contractors procuring the cheapest chairs and tables possible.
So, what hope is there in this ill-fitting world of furniture?
Bergin says that “shuffling” may be a low-cost solution. She says that children need to be able to move around in their chairs and engage in “active sitting”.
“It’s about this dynamic notion,” she explains. “You can have the best chair in the world, but it’ll be absolutely useless if the child isn’t able to actively move within that seat.”
Doing so, though, would put many a child in breach of the school’s behaviour policy. Western pedagogy has historically associated sitting still with good behaviour. This has resulted in those product designs that “allow students to transition between different postures” to be frowned upon, according to one industry source, who points out that this issue is not common elsewhere in the world. In other countries, they say, schools appear to have less of an issue with children shuffling around in their seats or transitioning from one piece of furniture to another during a class (see box, below).
So are we destined to put our students’ bodies through the trauma of ill-fitting furniture forever?
No one, it seems, is very optimistic.
“Fixing this is not simply a question of ergonomics, but also pedagogy,” says Alexander Shea, senior policy analyst at BESA. “Many of us have come to associate still, upright sitting children with good behaviour. Whether valid or not, this is a view that will be difficult to overcome.”
Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist
This article originally appeared in the 16 October 2020 issue under the headline “Putting terrible seating behind us”