Splintered seats of learning
In 1983, as chief furniture designer for the Department of Education and Science, I conducted a survey into the state of school furniture. It showed that between a quarter and a third of furniture in general teaching areas should be removed because of its very poor condition. Today, the situation is far worse.
In my new capacity as an independent consultant, I spent the summer holidays surveying a number of primary and secondary schools in different parts of the country, with a view to helping them bid for capital grants. I categorised the furniture in precisely the same way as I had done for the DES: missing; unfit for use and potentially dangerous; reparable; and OK. The results were staggering.
In one primary school with 243 pupils 79 per cent of the furniture should have been removed immediately, because of its poor and potentially dangerous condition; 9 per cent of furniture had gone missing, 12 per cent could be renovated but not one chair, desk or table was "OK" in the whole school.
In a secondary school with 1,287 pupils, 3 per cent of the furniture was missing and 82 per cent should have been removed immediately; in another school with 988 pupils 86 per cent of the furniture should be removed. These statistics are not exceptional, and the picture in local authority schools is no different.
Ten years ago an HMI report revealed that even then: "The provision of appropriate furniture in a sound state of repair was judged less than satisfactory in 45 LEAs; in none was it considered to be good. Visits to schools revealed the adverse effect of poor or unsuitable furniture upon the quality of work".
In the following year, 1986, HMI stated: "There is a widespread concern about the state of furniture, some has reached the end of its useful life with no prospect of replacement, some is inappropriate, and some awaits long-needed repair". In 1988, "it was of considerable concern that in almost half the schools there was some furniture which was very old, inappropriate or in a state of poor repair; in one there were ancient, ill-associated desks with much graffiti; in another the general air of depression created by broken windows, poor plaster work and leaking roofs was exacerbated in many classrooms by furniture which was very old, inflexible in use and which inhibited group activity."
Has anything happened since then? For the past month 148 grant-maintained schools have been coming to terms with the money allocated by the Funding Agency in December to improve their schools. About 650 grant-maintained schools face the prospect of coping for another year without any injection of capital funds for named projects. The vast majority of projects approved this time were not for furniture, but for building repairs, and at least three out of four GM schools have been left without any new funding for 1995-96.
While the removal of asbestos and roof repairs are obviously a top priority, the state of classroom furniture is no less serious. So, why is the situation not being remedied? Why did the Funding Agency for Schools not approve more furniture upgrading projects for 1995-96?
One of the first things for which Gillian Shephard was to endeavour to tap private industry, was cash to support capital investment in our schools. She stated through the Private Finance Initiative that "the goal is a more effective environment for learning". So why has furniture not been moved up the priority list?
When Tony Blair talks about improving the worst schools, is he aware of how run down many of our schools are, and of the likely cost? Is David Blunkett's vision of a well-funded and suitable environment for pupils just a dream?
The total cost of putting our school furniture in order would be in the region of Pounds 500 million, and there is not enough government money either through the grant-maintained schools programme or through the local authorities to bring furniture and interiors up to an acceptable modern standard. I am told repeatedly by schools that they have to make a choice between teachers' salaries or furniture and equipment.
A lick of paint and the supply of new furniture is a very economical way of improving the school interior. A set of primary school furniture with new marker boards and wall shelving would cost about Pounds 3,000 and decoration about Pounds 2,000. A secondary classroom would cost Pounds 3,000 to Pounds 4,000 to furnish and decorate; a science room Pounds 17,500 to Pounds 30, 000. A school chair costs about Pounds 7-9 and a table for two pupils Pounds 25 to Pounds 30. These figures represent good value for money.
Today, schools tend to upgrade the areas that parents see first, so the reception area is often refurbished. Unfortunately, the general classrooms remain the same as before. Perhaps schools would do better if the money was spent on pupil furniture and equipment.
I am old enough to remember the phrase "kippers and curtains". In other words, put the money in covering up the problem rather than addressing it. Perhaps change will come about through the insurance companies rather than curriculum and safety needs, once they know the risks schools are running.
The time has come to conduct a new survey of school buildings and furniture to assess the cost involved. Let us give all our pupils the opportunities to learn in an exciting, modern environment.
Since schools operate in loco parentis, I hope governors are well insured and teachers are paid-up members of a professional body, so that someone will protect them when an accident occurs. I have seen plastic chairs in use with the shell not attached to the underframe, science labs with taps missing, and computer rooms with wiring like Spaghetti Junction. These represent a serious hazard to pupils and staff.