Designed for severe educational use

18th April 2003 at 01:00
THE Scottish Executive is annoyingly persistent with its messages about healthy eating and exercise. Ministers even expect schools to pay attention. So it's goodbye to chips with everything, tuck shops are to be given a health makeover and, most ambitious of all, children will be dragged screaming from their chauffeured cars.

If pupil councils wish to divert the attacks on their electors' Coke, burgers and sweets, they could draw the Executive's attention to a serious health hazard in their classrooms. According to the charity Backcare, children are at risk of serious back pain in later life because of classroom furniture. The culprits are the flat-topped table and moulded plastic chair. Their colours may brighten the classroom but they force children to adopt twisted postures when working.

Teachers will not be surprised. Years of classroom life have accustomed us to the drawbacks of standard issue furniture. Children do hunch over tables or desks when writing and slouch when listening. Some children - well, boys - swing back on their chairs, despite dire warnings of the consequences.

The inevitable clatter to the floor amid twisted limbs and a banged head is timed for the exact moment of deepest concentration among fellow pupils.

Then there is the problem that children come in all shapes and sizes. The child who's too big for his desk may have to twist himself into odd shapes for comfort but he disturbs no one. Children on too high chairs set up a flurry of constant air pedalling that will drive even the sweetest tempered teacher to distraction. We have four sizes of tables and desks. My dreaded annual task is to check that we have the right height of tables in the right numbers in the right rooms. Each table requires a chair of correct height. And staff wonder why I discourage any change of use for our classrooms.

According to Backcare, "ergonomic" is the word that should be uppermost in my mind when considering new furniture. It recommends height-adjustable tables and chairs. The table should have a sloping surface and the seat should be tilted forward for good posture.

I think that "cost" would be a better word especially when my devolved budget allows me an annual pound;400 under the heading of "furniture". I can seat two P7 pupils at a standard table for about pound;100. If I choose ergonomic equivalents, I have little change from pound;400. How can I provide even one ergonomic classroom?

Recently, the Design Council has been looking at schools. Not surprisingly, it takes the view that good design can improve attainment. "Good furniture design is vital to ensure that classrooms are inspiring places to work and learn," it says. So it ran a competition to design classroom furniture of the future. Top names took part. The Habitat man produced a height adjustable table and chair. Cleverly, the chair also swivels - just right when you want to address the class rather than go through the disruptive routine of children standing up, turning chairs and sitting down again before you can see all 30 faces. The added schoolbag hook is welcome if it reduces the teacher's daily dice with death from stray bags.

A husband and wife team, Azumi - designers for Japanese luxury hotels - produced the "Orbital workstation" which is on castors. I'm less enthusiastic here. Castors and children normally don't go together. The Orbital workstation may be more dangerous than wandering schoolbags.

I don't remember hearing much from the Executive about the health benefits of ergonomic classroom furniture. Presumably the silence is due to cost.

The designers are not silent. They have confidence in their products. But a classroom is not a Habitat home or a Japanese upmarket hotel. A current manufacturer's catalogue labels school tables and desks as "designed for severe educational use".

Sounds like the voice of experience.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary school in Perth.

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