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When a house is not just a home

Is your home office crowding out your livingspace? It doesn't have to, writes John Caunt

We may not like it, but the teacher who doesn't take work home is about as rare in these islands as the red squirrel or the smooth snake. But where does it get done? On a corner of the dining table, spread across the settee, or on the family computer when you can manage to drive your children away from it?

Setting up a dedicated home workspace won't make the evening slog any easier, but it can help you be more disciplined and productive, leaving you to make better use of your supposed leisure time. It can also reduce friction with partners irritated by school clutter invading the living space.

Experts suggest you try to separate your workspace from areas associated with relaxation. They say the constant reminder of work to be done can be a source of stress. That's fine if you have a spare room, but where space is at a premium you may have to set up your work space in a corner of the bedroom or living room.

The main requirements are comfort, good lighting and ergonomics, and an ability to accommodate anything you might reasonably need in the course of your work.

If the idea of a home office conjures up images of the mortgage-hiking conversions in panelled oak or beech so beloved of Sunday colour supplement advertisers, think again. You can set yourself up adequately at minimal expense. Most large towns have budget office equipment superstores, and a plunge into Yellow Pages will reveal the addresses of second-hand office furniture suppliers. You can even adapt furniture you already own - the "desk" on which I am writing this is a two-metre length of kitchen worktop fixed to the wall.

A well-proportioned and adjustable chair is probably the best investment you wil make, particularly if you expect to do much keyboard work. Choose one with adjustable seat height, a back rest which is adjustable vertically and horizontally and seat depth which is sufficient if you are tall but not too great if you are short.

Think about the most appropriate form of storage for paperwork. An inexpensive filing cabinet is best if you have a large number of relatively slender files, but box files or cardboard magazine files are better for keeping diverse and substantial documents together.

Stacking plastic crates are the cheapest option for large-scale storage of bulky items.

Items you use regularly should be immediately to hand when you need them. If you plan to erect shelves over your desk, try to position them so you can reach items on the lowest one without standing up. Avoid placing frequently used items such as reference books or printer in positions where you will need to stretch and twist to use them.

A computer is increasingly necessary in any home office - a problem if you don't have one or have to negotiate with your offspring for access to the family machine.

If the cost of buying new is daunting, you're out of luck as the Computers for Teachers scheme has been frozen until next year. But remember that the falling cost of new computers has forced down the price of second-hand machines. Publications such as Micro Mart include advertisements from companies specialising in the sale of ex-corporate machines, and around pound;100 can provide you with a set-up - not state-of-the-art, but perfectly capable of running Windows 95 and modern office software.

So there it is. Relatively cheap and quick. All we need now is a grant from the DfEE.

John Caunt is author of Organise Yourself (Kogan PageSunday Times pound;7.99)

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