Are you sitting comfortably?

School furniture needs to be both functional & flexible to meet the demands of a fast-changing teaching environment, says Simon Fry

The furniture found throughout today’s schools, in classrooms, libraries, ICT suites and dining rooms must serve a number of purposes. Not only must the children using it be comfortable and safe, but its functionality must make the teacher’s role of dispensing learning (or the catering staff’s role of dispensing lunch) easy and efficient. Flexibility will bring scope to break away from traditional classroom layouts and find more effective means of engagement, while shiny new tables and chairs will impress prospective pupils and their parents. Schools looking to replace outdated furniture are advised to do their homework.

Indeed, according to Kevin Geeves, KI Europe education sales director, classroom furniture which is fit for purpose is no longer just about ergonomics. He identifies numerous considerations when seeking to furnish learning spaces for today’s digital-native generation. “Teaching methods have changed and understanding how lessons are delivered is vital; teachers don’t always remain static at the front of the room addressing children sat in rows. A variety of media is used in different subjects employing new technology and techniques. Furniture may need to be reconfigured several times daily to adapt to individual lessons so durability is also vital.”

Just as uniform suppliers are having to provide for children of vastly different sizes, so too must the furniture at which they sit accommodate pupils who will grow up to become jockeys, basketball players or props.

More adaptability is desired when it comes to the nature of teaching, says Kevin. “When considering independent or group work, furniture can facilitate or hamper collaborative working. Activities may involve the whole class sitting in a circle or be carried out in smaller sets, so rigid and cumbersome furniture will not provide the desired mobility. Similarly, while examinations require a writing surface, at other times children will use a laptop, tablet, book or other material, so foldaway or removable tablet arms provide the best of both worlds without cluttering a room with desks.”

Like time, space is money, so furniture suited to multiple arrangements ensures a single space can be used as an assembly hall, music rehearsal venue or indoor sport stadium over the course of a single day, while a classroom could host a drama group before lunch and a history lesson immediately after. Indeed, the right kind of equipment can ensure learning does not need to be carried out indoors at all. Before purchasing furniture, Kevin believes those responsible for procurement should think outside the box. “Modern classrooms do not necessarily have four walls any more, so consider whether furniture can be taken outdoors and whether it is waterproof, able to be cleaned if made dirty and will it be damaged by sunlight? Fundamentally, is it sufficiently durable to go through all of this and remain comfortable for years to come?”

Looking forward is also key when kitting out a library – the room in any school subject to the greatest change in recent years and likely to be changed most in the future. It is widely acknowledged libraries are in a transitional phase: the ever-advancing digital world brings many pressures on them to remain up-to-date and relevant, balancing digital and traditional offerings and providing a functional space with support for the teaching environment.

Libraries will, however, remain an important part of any school given their strong links to academic achievement and their centrality in encouraging reading for pleasure and improving literacy. However, as learning methods evolve and technology becomes a larger part of life in general, there are demands for further support, such as power sockets, mobile device chargers, group study hubs and iPad/tablet loan and storage facilities.

Gresswell is aware of this: furniture solutions incorporating extra sockets and charger points are key, but these are not the only considerations. It is now essential that as well as being attractive and inviting, furniture layouts are easily reconfigurable – enabling the library space to be quickly converted for other uses, such as meetings, presentations and fundraising events. Some of the solutions proposed by Gresswell include mobile units and screening, interconnecting and folding tables, stackable chairs, comfortable, lightweight, bean-bags, mobile “power towers”, iPad stands and trolleys.

Michaela Lancaster, Demco Interiors’ senior design manager, echoes this need for adaptability. Her company’s approach to designing and furnishing school library and classroom spaces focuses on the importance of managing electronic and physical resources, where traditional book stock sits on easy-to-see display shelves alongside interactive screens, iPad bounce bars, tablet shelves, green screens for filming and multi-use amphitheatre-style seating for reading sessions or school productions.

“The blueprint for educational design and furnishings is flexibility of space, flexibility of working (group and individual) and flexibility of digital access,” says Michaela. “Today’s pupils have a keen eye for design and want to hook up and set down in cool spaces that motivate and inspire. Our role is to bring all these strands together to create functional spaces that zing with imagination and creativity. We recently designed a hub which could be easily constructed and deconstructed without special tools or skills or strong staff or pupils needed! The space’s versatility means that as well as functioning as a library with a retail look, matt black shelving, quick-pick book display units and multicolour clip-together work pods, it has been used to host award nights, parents’ evenings and the school’s Christmas fair.”

Technology is replacing books not just in libraries, but also in pupils’ rucksacks. Given the prevalence of mobile devices, there is a similarly wide need for their management.

LapSafe® Products is the industry-leading expert in managing mobile computing and powering smart technologies, specialising in providing safe power management solutions which allow charging, syncing and data transfer for laptops, iPads, tablets and other such devices in volume.

Selected as finalists for the Award for Innovation at the Essex Business Excellence awards for the Diplomat™ LMS, LapSafe® offer an extensive and diverse range of charging trolleys and cases plus the innovative Diplomat™ LMS self-service charging lockers. Pupils can be loaned devices or locker space for the popular BYOD (bring your own device) facility in the same way they would be loaned a library book. Access is granted using a 19” touchscreen and barcode or MiFare card, PIN code or biometrics.

From the very latest technology … to the UK’s oldest specialist music school, Purcell School, where Ellis Furniture recently conducted a renovation. Although not old by the standards of many independent schools (it was founded in 1962), this specialist boarding and day school underwent a new-build 70-bed project with Ellis, which offers a design and installation service for fitted bedroom furniture as well as providing the education sector with classroom storage products. Its Estudio product range includes a wide array of tray units, open bookshelves and open wall units, which are available in colours including beech, oak and walnut to create a welcoming feel, while the new Novus range brings colour, choice and vibrancy into the classroom.
In the dining room, aesthetic appeal and functionality are combined by Claughtons, a company with over 30 years of experience of making furniture for schools. Easy-to-stack skid base and cantilever chairs are specially designed to stop marking and denting, perfect for vinyl floors. Modular seating and folding dining tables which can be stacked onto trolleys when not in use make the most of any size or shape of dining area, which can be rearranged at any time.

In the library, back-to-back and slide-out shelving, book trolleys and storage trays plus interactive technology such as plasma screens can be incorporated into any fit-out. Furniture for ICT suites can be designed around Mac or PC desktops with removable modesty panels keeping rooms clutter-free.

KI Europe W: www.kieurope.com/Education
Gresswell W: www.gresswell.co.uk
Demco Interiors W: www.demcointeriors.co.uk
LapSafe W: www.lapsafe.com
Ellis Furniture W: www.ellisfurniture.co.uk/schools
Claughtons W: www.claughtons.com