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Concern over bad posture and back pain will take school furniture into the comfort zone
Are you sitting comfortably? If you're one of Britain's 10 million school pupils, the answer is probably no. Yet schools spent pound;94.2 million on furniture in 1999-2000 - almost 10 per cent of their total expenditure on equipment. And a large part of that went on chairs.
Between the ages of five and 16, a child spends around 15,000 hours sitting down at school . Researchers at the University of Surrey's centre for health ergonomics estimate that around 40 per cent of children suffer back pain, with badly designed seating one of the main culprits. Perhaps it is time to take the school chair back to the drawing board.
"In the classroom of the future technology is going to be everywhere," says Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association. "But we will still have chairs. They will be better designed, more attractive and more ergonomic, but they will not look drastically different from today."
In most schools this means the polypropylene chair. The polyprop is the fast food of the furniture world - stackable, portable and cheap (about pound;8 each). First produced by Habitat designer Robin Day in 1960, the injection-moulded chair used the latest technology of the day and quickly became a classroom classic.
In tandem with that other 1960s invention, the tessellating table, it liberated pupils from the Victorian set-up of ranks of hinged-top desks, though there is evidence that desks - made of plastic - are back in favour.
Ergonomics was not a subject on the curriculum in most schools when they were buying polyprops in their thousands. Mass-produced versions used less rigid plastic, that, combined with the sloping seat that made them stackable, played havoc with children's posture.
Better seating and desks are one of the most common requests in surveys of pupils' wants. Specialist manufacturers of classroom furniture do produce good quality, well-designed chairs. It's just that they cost more, and with school budgets being what they are, many schools turn to cheaper outlets for replacement furniture, says Ray Barker.
A Scandinavian invention could provide one solution. The Tripp Trapp chair, an adjustable high-chair-cum-stool, is issued to pupils in Norway; they can personalise it and keep it throughout their schooldays. At pound;100 a piece they don't come cheap but, says Ray Barker, "schools should think more about the long-term cost".
However, the uncertainty of future budgets has traditionally prevented schools taking a far-sighted approach to buying furniture. Last year Robin Day bemoaned the lack of good, mass-produced, low-cost seating. "I would like to hear someone saying they'd invest in the tools to make another low-cost stacking chair," he said, "as we now know so much more about ergonomics and plastic technology than we used to, but nobody has."
Until now. Last summer, under the banner Furniture for the Future, the Design Council joined forces with the Department for Education and Skills to give three design teams four weeks and pound;20,000 each to come up with a prototype for "beautiful and affordable" furniture. The results will be launched next month and will include work from Azumi, the design partnership that has worked on Channel 4's Big Brother series.
Hilary Cottam, director of learning and public services at the Design Council, says we need a wholesale rethink of the way we sit and work. She has high hopes for the designs, which she says will revolutionise the way children sit and work in class. Bad layouts, such as the typical IT suite, with banks of computers facing the wall, need to be addressed too, as part of a holistic approach to school furniture. "We have to change the way designers and manufacturers link to schools," she says. "We need to think about flexibility in furniture. We have to challenge the one-size-fits-all way of delivering education."
Ones to watch
Oreka Kids Nine-piece range of adaptable children's furniture named after biscuits
Tripp Trapp The Norwegian solution to children's seating