The year between the Chatterley trial and the first Beatles LP was a watershed for school furniture design as much as social attitudes. Gerald Haigh looks at the legacy of liberation
Why is school furniture like sex? Well, apparently they both had some kind of renaissance in the early Sixties. It was 1963, to be precise. The year poet Philip Larkin claimed sexual intercourse was invented was the same one educators first started taking an interest in classroom furniture, according to David Glover of the Counties Furniture Group. Before then it had all been brown desks, with lids, in rows.
In the Sixties, he explains: "Teachers started wanting to change the way they delivered the curriculum, with a shift towards groups. There was an obvious need for more imaginative furniture, and a corresponding move away from solid ranks of desks to tables and chairs and storage trays."
In response to this changing climate, 1963 saw the launch of the Counties Furniture Group, a non-profit-making company, now with 74 local authority members, that aimed to provide a flexible range of school furniture. The furniture is designed by David Glover and his colleagues, and supplied by a range of manufacturers. They aim to cater to "the whole learning environment".
This means CFG can equip a whole classroom - or a whole school if necessary. At Glynne primary in Kingswinford, Dudley, West Midlands, for example, CFG has worked with the authority and the staff to furnish what headteacher Janet O'Neill calls "a classroom for the 21st century".
It has smart tables that can be arranged in twos, threes or fours, for groups of four to eight children. The computers sit on separate, purpose-built tables. The chairs are adjustable - smaller versions of a revolving office chair. "The children love them," says Mrs O'Neill.
"It cost less than pound;5,000, and I'm very pleased with the value for money and the quality," she adds.
Many schools keep putting off replacing their furniture - money is often tight, and there are many other calls upon it. Mrs O'Neill was motivated by her belief in the importance of the working environment. "Children respect quality, and this is seen in everything - the books and paper you give them, as well as in their surroundings."
CFG, like all school suppliers, is constantly looking at the balance between cost and quality. David Glover holds up a polypropylene classroom chair for emphasis. "Nine pounds," he says. "And a school will expect it to last for 20 years. Would you put a pound;9 chair in your home and expect it to last that long?" Another important aspect of quality is ergonomics - that aspect of furniture design that deals with comfort and posture. Standard practice is to provide desks and chairs in a range of sizes to cope with the various age groups, according to dimensions set out in British Standards guidelines.
Janet O'Neill makes sure she buys the appropriate sized furniture, but points out that children are at school for only part of their lives. "They manage on ordinary adult-sized furniture at home. They don't have tiny toilets in the house do they?" Andrew Fielder, headteacher of Sandy Hill primary in St Austell, Cornwall, takes a much stronger line. He believes all children should be carefully seated, individually, on the right-sized chairs and tables, and that these should be designed with ergonomic principles firmly in mind.
A year ago he re-equipped the entire school with a range of chairs and tables from Sebel, a company that specialises in ergonomic furniture. Its Postura desk, for example, has a writing surface that can be tilted up to a slope.
Before parting with any cash, Mr Fielder sent samples to a physiotherapist for approval. He explains: "She sees many teenagers with back problems caused by using badly-designed classroom furniture five days a week and carrying heavy bags around," he explains.
Mr Fielder had been expecting to replace his 27-year-old school furniture just one classroom at a time. But after negotiating a special deal, Sebel equipped the whole school in one go - more than 250 chairs and tables. The total cost was around pound;12,000, far less than it would have cost to do one classroom at a time.
He is delighted with his new acquisitions. He says: "The presentation of the children's work has improved because they are sitting up properly to a sloping writing surface. Once you've had this you wouldn't dream of having anything else. We are here for the wellbeing of the children and we have an obligation to make sure they are sitting properly."
Counties Furniture Group. CFG Design Office, The Shirehall, Shrewsbury SY2 6ND. Tel: 01743 253371 Sebel Furniture, C2 The Courtyard, Alban Park, St Alban's, Hertfordshire AL4 0LA. Tel: 01727 869869
BEFORE YOU BUY
Are you going to put it off yet again? Consider whether it might be time to earmark funds annually.
Will you just replace what you had before, or will you accommodate curriculum changes? The literacy hour, for instance, demands space for a relatively large group on comfy chairs, with the teacher also on an easy chair.
Are separate trays and storage units still appropriate, or is it time to look at storage desks with lids? You could buy them new, or like one Warwickshire school, buy unwanted lift-up desks from other schools and have them refurbished.
A refurbishment is the opportunity to give computers their proper importance in the classroom, with purpose-made tables and chairs.
Do you really need a teacher's desk? Many primaries have decided that because teachers rarely sit at them, a lockable cupboard may suffice.
How important is the ergonomic factor? Do you want to consult a physiotherapist?
Take catalogue prices with a pinch of salt. Mr Fielder's experience suggests you should be prepared to drive a hard bargain. The bottom line is that firms want to get equipment into schools and there are always deals to be made.