A guide to furnishing your school

In recent years we have seen a welcome increase in schools’ budgets, but of course without ring-fenced funding and an increasing level of autonomy in schools, it is less clear how this money is actually being spent. Each year, along with its close working relationship with the government and suppliers, the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) carries out a broad range of research initiatives to give us a more in-depth understanding of trends in expenditure.

Survey response
Our ‘Resources in English Maintained Schools’ survey carried out in January 2015, showed that along with ICT there has been a greater increase in furniture spending than originally projected in 2013.
In this academic year, the research shows that primary schools are planning a 5.5 per cent increase in investment in furniture and storage, while secondary schools are looking at a healthy 6.2 per cent increase.
The 900 schools that responded to the survey (597 primary and 303 secondary schools) also forecast that this expenditure will not only be maintained next year but will increase again; although by a slightly lower amount (+2.2 per cent in primary and +0/8 per cent in secondary schools).
These figures indicate that nearly £42 million will be spent on furniture in 2014/15 – up £2.2 million when compared to the previous year.
Clearly there is a lot of money to be spent, and therefore it is even more important to make the right purchasing decisions. We have learned over the years that buying cheap is not a good investment.
A staggering eight per cent of children under the age of seven experience back pain. While it is not possible to attribute this to poor furniture design, it is unquestionable that this would have some detrimental effect. The pain, cost of treatment and negative effect on the quality of life aside, there is also evidence that children who report cervical and/or lumbar pain suffer from poorer school performance.  
BESA is committed to working with both schools and suppliers to raise the standards in education, therefore, back in 2012 we worked with FIRA (Furniture Industries Research Association) and decided to start a process for change. Furniture standards at the time were based on the sizes of children measured in the 1960s.
We measured 1,500 children of all ages across the country. The data confirmed what is obvious: children are generally taller but, importantly, the range of sizes in any age group is now wider. Children are also a different shape with, for example, very different ratios of body to leg lengths compared to the 1960s. The implications for ergonomic furniture design are substantial.
Both at that time and today, the problem is a lack of understanding in schools about what to buy; little guidance is given to schools on best practice furniture procurement! As schools scan educational furniture catalogues they often look at prices that do not compare with the high street. The danger is that a proportion will buy ‘cheap’.

Committed to provision
Furniture members of BESA will manufacture to the British educational furniture standards BS4875 (strength and stability) and BS5873 (educational furniture), and now the European standard prEN1729 (chairs and tables for educational institutions). The latter is particularly to do with dimensions and ergonomic issues.

Throughout our campaigning we also initiated the educational furniture standard, EN1729 backed by the Department for Education. We recommend that you look out for these standards on any furniture you are considering buying.
Everyone involved in the provision of furniture for children has a duty of care and in the case of BESA member organisations, they adhere to our code of business practice which gives schools a little more comfort, knowing they are buying from reputable suppliers.
As Murray Hudson, managing director of Gratnells and Chair of BESA’s Furniture special interest group, explains further: “BESA Furniture Manufacturers Group members are committed to the provision of furniture which meets the highest and most up-to-date standards. An excellent example of this is the implementation of BSEN1729 – which recognises the importance of both ergonomic excellence and durability in use.”

A spacial environment
However, in addition to the furniture standards to ensure comfort and safety, another consideration when investing in classroom furniture is the changing face of the learning environment.
ESA McIntosh’s sales director, Ramsay McDonald explains: “Education environments have changed beyond recognition since the 1970s: group working, the integration of constantly evolving Information and Communication Technologies requirements and different approaches to pedagogy have combined to ensure that maximum flexibility is essential in the design of learning spaces and its furniture.”
He added: “A raft of different models and procurement routes across the UK, further complicate the landscape, with differing priorities and design considerations coming into play. Recent research suggests that secondary students are more aware of well-designed social and circulation spaces, good quality toilet and dining facilities and an environment that makes them feel safe and secure.”
Because of this, ESA McIntosh encourages its client schools, teachers and pupils to have a real say in how the spaces in which they work, learn and relax are designed and furnished.
Recent projects where the consultation process has benefited from this approach include the new Burntisland Primary School in Fife which is part of the Building Fife’s Future (BFF) initiative. ESA McIntosh was selected to supply, design and install the Furniture Fittings and Equipment (FF&E) for the new school. Using its REVIT software, allowed headteacher, Julie Anderson, teachers and even pupils, to view design proposals, to gain a visual understanding of the proposed school interior and to contribute to design solutions.
A common mistake is highlighted by Martin Huleatt, training and marketing manager at Community Playthings.
He said: “It is important to stress that especially for the early years, specialist knowledge is needed for furniture layout and it is not just a matter of making everything smaller. Flexibility of use is key so that different teaching styles and options can be accommodated.”
However, it is important to remember that there are many different types of furniture to suit different environments. Whether a library, classroom, staff room, hall or dining area, different types of furniture are better suited to a school’s needs. Kent based furniture manufacturer, Gopak, offers a full range of furniture to meet virtually every school’s needs. It specialises in high quality lightweight aluminium framed folding tables and stacking benches. The range is designed to be lightweight and portable with its aluminium frame making them incredibly durable and flexible. Schools looking to invest in furniture for any specific area should take time to visit the ‘supplier’ section of the BESA website to understand the areas of specialism of each member organisation.
What to consider
So what other things should schools deliberate when looking to invest in new furniture? Clive Gilbert, managing director of Morleys offers some important things to consider. He advices:“With limited funding, one area of focus is of course going to be good value. This is not about buying cheap, it is based on the lifetime value of a product. The product guarantee is also key.  
“As schools grow and new Free Schools appear, continuity of supply is important. Knowing that it can add to its chosen furniture range at any time, is an important consideration for schools; established suppliers who are expected to be in business in years to come are naturally more attractive to these schools.
“Space is a growing area of concern for schools, with higher pupil numbers. Schools are always looking for innovative ways to store and organise resources and space limitations also lead to folding furniture becoming an increasingly popular option.”

Case studies
The increasing demands on space was a prime focus of two primary schools, St Stephen’s RC and St Bartholomew’s C of E primary schools in North Tyneside, which were integrated into one new build school site.
BESA member, EME Furniture, has recently completed furnishing the new school optimising the space and minimising the budget. Wanting flexibility in their learning spaces, the schools opted for single pupil ‘wedge’ shaped tables which can be grouped, formed into rows and spaced individually. Flexible step seating, which provides seating for assemblies and gatherings, proved to be an effective solution in the multi-functional hall space.
Caroline McMillan of EME Furniture advises schools to ‘think about the variety of activities they may want to perform in a space, both now and in the future’. She said: “Many ‘spare’ rooms or multi‑use rooms are not given much thought when it comes to furnishing. By choosing shaped tables, stacking chairs and carefully selected mobile units combining storage and whiteboards, seating or worktops, a room can become truly multifunctional.”
Balancing academic rigour with children’s need to play is never easy. As deputy principal responsible for two-year olds through Year 5, Sian McDermott is determined that the children at Oasis Academy Hadley have time and space to play. She makes sure the teaching staff understand how play impacts positively on children’s disposition for learning. Achieving this objective is perfectly feasible when you have worked with the correct suppliers who take the time to offer a full consultative approach to your school’s requirements.
With our research showing an increasing investment in furniture, we hope that this advice proves to be valuable and serves as a procurement check list for your school.

Further information