Are they sitting in comfort?

Nick Carter tells you what to consider when buying school chairs and tables

When you walk round the Education Show sizing up the educational furniture, from chairs and tables to desks, don't automatically think "lowest price", think "value for money". The lowest initial price may end up costing your school maintenance top-ups for years to come.

To avoid the hidden extras, ask the following questions before committing any of the school's vital furniture budget:

* What are the terms of supply? You may find that the same item can be available from different suppliers at vastly differing prices. It may be that you can get a better deal through your regular supplier, such as the local authority or the county supplies department.

Remember that a large discount may be hiding a whopping starting price. Shop around, especially to check out carriage costs. The more furniture you have, the higher these could be.

* If you are buying direct from a manufacturer, judge not only the furniture and prices on show but also the quality of the customer service. Low prices often equate with lower quality in other areas, and back-up services are often a prime candidate in this respect.

* You may wish to consider leasing or long-term purchasing arrangements.

* Has the piece of furniture passed the strength and stability tests specified by the Department for Education and Employment? A leaflet on standards is available, free of charge, from the DFEE.

Once you have settled on a supplier, what about the merchandise? Furniture has a habit of disappearing in schools; often this is only from room to room but it can still be a nuisance. Colour coding is a useful way of stopping it. Colour can be used in a primary school to denote the age group, or subject by the time you get to secondary level.

Tables have a major impact on the interior design of the room as the surfaces become more prominent than the flooring. The colour of the table tops has to be chosen with care, especially as manufacturers offer a full range of colours and patterns in laminate. Without sounding too Homes-and-Gardens-ish, a red or blue table top will dominate a room and "lift" the interior, while a sludgy colour will quieten and "slow down" the appearance.

If you are using tables for sticking and making things, which means, inevitably, cleaning the tops with water, you will need to consider a laminate rather than a natural wood.

Don't forget to make sure that any chairs you buy fit under the desks. Often, chairs have angled legs which means they are wider than the seat and back. You need to check the overall width and not just the seat width with your supplier. If you need to check your own chairs prior to buying tables, just turn one upside-down and measure the width of the legs. I have been caught out by this before.

Another major consideration, which will effect the price of chairs, is whether or not to purchase fire retardant (FR) items. It is not a statutory requirement, but I strongly encourage schools to consider buying FR chairs, especially for the hall if it is hired out for discos and other social functions. It is a considerable risk not to. Your local fire prevention officer will advise you in this respect. If you are using chairs for public performances, they should normally have a linking mechanism - check before you order.

Beware also when stacking polypropylene chairs next to gym mats for the end-of-term disco. I would recommend using only FR chairs as well as mats with an FR covering. If there's a fire, the fumes created from the mixture of foam and polypropylene can be lethal.

For many years school furniture has been dominated by the four-legged table and the plastic seat and metal-legged chair. Sebel, an Australian company is attempting to change that.

Sebel has designed and manufactures an all-plastic chair for all pupil age ranges. You can see a similar sort of thing on Neighbours. The range is called Postura and comes in six sizes for primary to secondary schools. Having completed its research in Australia, the company is now looking to expand into the UK; you can see Postura at the Education Show (stand D20).

I saw the complete range of seating and must say it looks very good indeed. The all-plastic chair is a quality product, looks smart and is robust. I tried to break it and failed. Although it is undoubtedly strong, there is no reference to the UK strength and stability standards.

The cantilevered desk is an interesting item, as the working surface can be positioned flat or at a 12.5 LESS THAN angle for writing. The design assumes a formal class layout. At the moment the company is not giving any details about prices, but it is safe to assume that it will be more than traditional equipment.

Other highlights to look out for include: the Hostess NP series (stand C46), which looks good and tough; the Hille E (stand C13), a robust chair that continues to look timeless; the EFM-Chesterfield (E61), competitively priced but looking a little dated now; the Remploy range of chairs which are unusually wide (D2); and the Metalliform chair (stand C48). For reliable school furniture of all kinds see the Counties Furniture Group (stand C42), and Steltube's skid base chair is another which should go the distance (stand C6). This company is also exhibiting its nursery range of furniture, which is becoming very popular.

Most of the chair manufacturers also supply tables, but it's worth having a look at what Sherwood Industries (D55), British Thornton (C1), ESA McIntosh (C40) and Blyde Barton (C6) have to offer.

* Nick Carter is design director of the Educational Design Group NCA Ltd and was formerly chief designer for the Department for Education and Employment

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