That'll be the day that I DIY

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
The Design Council proposal that schools should buy their furniture from some of the more design-conscious High Street retailers, such as IKEA and Habitat, is an interesting one. Those inured to working in a squalidly functional environment would welcome a bit of colour and interesting shape, other than the art teacher.

I am all in favour of anything that departs from the 'bogstandard', to choose a term at random, provided that schools are not subsequently attacked for being spendthrift or trendy. There is no reason why children should not be educated in an aesthetically-pleasing environment, especially when good design and low cost go hand in hand.

In Victorian and Edwardian times, the three-tier schools, with their electricity and running water, offered a model for those taught in them. Schools were a living daily reminder of aspiration. The message was clear: work hard and you too can live in modern luxury like this.

More recently, a long period of neglect in the 1980s and 1990s turned what were sometimes the same buildings into dilapidated slums, often inferior to the homes of the children educated in them. Schools became a daily reminder of desperation. The new message seemed to be clear: work hard, or you too could end up living in a dump like this.

If children are to receive the very best, however, will society be eager to pay, or will attractive furniture and the trappings of a decent working environment be relegated once again to the bottom of the priority list? Hankering after designer furniture may simply become yet another good intention that crumbles to dust.

If schools are to venture into the High Street, it is important that what they buy is not just attractive, but also functional and reasonably priced. Over the years, traditional school furnishings have not always met these three criteria.

Consider those metal tubing and canvas chairs that for years were a common institutional form of seating. They were cheap, they could be stacked high, but not for nothing were they known as 'numbums'. Sit for longer than a few minutes and the nether regions were paralysed.

Thousands of punishments were meted out to children shuffling this way and that on their wretchedly uncomfortable chairs. They were accused of fidgeting, being incapable of sitting still, but they were simply obeying a primeval drive to keep up a flow of blood to their reproductive organs, so that humanity had a future.

Teachers themselves are notorious sufferers from haemorrhoids, after years of standing for most of the day, munching sandwiches and sitting on uncomfortable wooden chairs in between times. The combination of piles and a flat wooden chair is what you would wish on your worst enemy.

If schools are to do more High Street shopping, then it must all be carried out judiciously. There are many pitfalls for the unwary. Can you imagine if someone shopped at one of those places where the furniture looks nice in the showroom, but comes in a flatpack? I remember bitterly the wardrobe that took me well over a weekend and much Anglo-Saxon language finally to assemble.

The instructions had been translated directly from the original Sanskrit and the diagrams been drawn by a cerebrally challenged Martian. By Sunday night, fingers covered in glue, inexplicably spare wooden dowels still lying in the box, I was ready to put a sledgehammer through the finished product. The thought of teachers assembling their own furniture after school from these miniature torture chambers in a box is too bitter to contemplate.

Then there were those very nice designer dining room chairs we bought that suffered from one slight drawback: the beautifully-curved teak frames fractured every time someone leaned back in them. "That was a very nice dinner, thank you." Scrunch! Crash! Silence. Another embarrassed guest lay helpless on the floor, as we cursed the whole Danish nation for the design faults of the few.

Maybe the very idea of schools shopping on the High Street should be widened to teaching children in class. Do four sums and get another one absolutely free. Only three out of ten for your homework? Write with a brand new Whizzo all-purpose pen and we'll double it.

This is only right, since the High Street market approach has quite clearly already been applied to teachers. Brilliant at teaching maths or science? Come to our school and you'll be paid more than in some schools we could possibly mention.

Collect our good behaviour vouchers and you can get a cash bonus. No, I tell you what. Look missus, I like your face, the wife'll kill me for this, but how about pound;2,000 and another grand if by any chance you can possibly meet next year's targets?

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?

Subscribe

To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers

Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
 
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today