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Schools Report

15 April 2007

Three perspectives on furniture, lighting and fire safety in schools demonstrate that much can be learned from the adult work environment to improve the learning environment today of tomorrow’s employees who are pupils in schools and colleges

INVESTING IN ADJUSTABLE SEATING FOR SCHOOLCHILDREN will earn dividends not only for better ergonomics as they grow, but also provide a firm foundation for good working practice in employment, says freelance writer, Martin Mitchell. Adults used to complain that kids ‘just wouldn’t sit still’. According to Supernanny or Jamie Oliver, X-Boxes and YouTube, et al, have rendered children static, immovable lumps. In fact, kids are off their backsides and away from their desks a lot more frequently than most office-working adults.

As acknowledged by most leading authorities on ergonomic health in the workplace, there has been a sea change in accepted wisdom on the subject, with the emphasis shifting from posture towards movement. This means that the perceived health benefits of finding a correct seating posture are rendered pretty minimal if allowance isn’t made for regular breaks, position and task variance, and time spent away from the desk area.

As Jorgen Josefsson, MD of RH Form, explains: ‘Of course it’s good that people have been made aware of the need for appropriate furniture and seating positions, with regard to such issues as correct lumbar support and so on, but this is only one element of ergonomics. Even the most correct seating position becomes incorrect if over-used without variance or respite. It is equally important to vary your seating position in order to promote oxygen circulation around the body. To the same end, regular breaks must also be taken, to stretch and walk about, away from the desk completely.”

He continued: "In children that are still growing, often at very different rates in the same age group, these factors are highly important. Luckily, unlike many adults, this seems to be something that children in classrooms know about instinctively, even if they’re not consciously aware of it.’

With thousands of office workers suffering from back pain and other musculoskeletal problems relating to poor working practices, it’s clear that sedentary working methods are not conducive to anyone’s wellbeing, and it’s the schoolchildren that are leading the way in avoiding such problems.

So what provisions are made for tomorrow’s workforce? If so much is made of adults’ ergonomic requirements with, for example, easily-adjustable chairs with the correct amount of support in certain areas, then it’s at leastequally important to address the needs of growing boys and girls of different ages, shapes and sizes?

With the height of boys between the ages of 5-15 typically ranging between 95cm-180cm, and girls of similar age’s with heights falling only slightly lower towards the upper percentiles, it’s clear that provisions should be made to best protect the individual requirements of schoolchildren, in the same way that employers are obliged to for their staff.

Until recently UK schools have been designed and furnished along the guidelines of a ‘one size fits all’ policy with little allowance made for differentiation between children. Every class has kids who was much taller, or smaller, or fatter than everyone else, but they still had to sit on the same chairs at the same height table as everyone else. Children should not be singled out just because of their own particular anthropometric dimensions, but how hard would it be to implement a system that at least allowseach child to achieve their own ‘best fit’ working position?

Easily-stackable, uniform plastic chairs are cheap and durable, but it could make sense to spend a little more to invest in the sort of furniture that can adapt at the same rate as children grow? For example, the Norwegian ‘Tripp-Trapp’ chair by Stokke, common in Scandinavian homes and schools, has both an adjustable seat and foot rail that can be altered as the child grows. In many schools, the chair becomes a personalised accessory of each child, bearing their name and other decorations as it is used by them throughout their tenure at the school. However, when similar chairs were trialled in British schools the response was, “It’s too hard to clean around.”

Ann Clarke of Claremont Group Interiors highlights one of the areas where more could be done to improve student welfare. “With the Government’s intention to provide every school with a computer for each pupil, there also needs to be a similar commitment made to providing the correct workstation environment to accompany each unit. This means adjustable
furniture, footrests where required and even proper training in correct usage, and guidelines for frequency of usage. Computers can be a very useful learning tool for schoolchildren, but there are inherent risks and dangers involved that can become apparent if computers are over-used or used incorrectly. It’s important, particularly with progressive education initiatives such as the new academy schools, that equipment and training are afforded the same amount of importance and relevance in forward-thinking establishments.”

Some schools are now recruiting the expertise to bring about a change in the way schools accommodate their pupils on an individual basis. As Stephen Pickup of Diamik explains, “There are two types of furniture that must be incorporated appropriately - fixed (science lab benching) and loose (table and chairs and other movable elements). In order to ensure that all these are correctly installed, designers should use the furniture as a starting point and make sure they are completely aware of all the other factors that need to be considered taking into consideration the logistics of any premises, their utilities, M&E, heating and ventilation, and so on.”

So it seems like there’s a lot to consider in approaching the provision of correctly functioning educational environments for
children. In design terms, this means more than just ensuring that there’re enough pairs of lefthanded scissors for whoever needs them. An ergonomic approach that helps to ensure the health and safety of children will surely go a long way to automatically securing the health of workplaces and workers in the future.

Lighting for learning
Lighting of schools has suffered from a lack of imagination and a rigid adherence to what has gone before. Not so at Trinity Academy, as John Craven of Whitecroft Lighting explains.

ENSURING THE BEST LIT CONDITIONS for the diverse areas that make up a school is perhaps one of the most challenging tasks faced by lighting designers. As well as contributing to a suitable environment for learning, the lighting has to cater for additional activities in schools in the evening and weekends, for the local community and offer low cost ownership through efficient performance and low maintenance. Lighting at the Trinity Academy in Doncaster, which opened in September 2005, illustrates many of these challenges and how they can be met.

Trinity Academy replaced Thorne Grammar School and has 1,470 11-18 year olds on its roll, including a sixth form of 350. As students spend so much of their school days in classrooms, this is clearly an area where the overall ambience can make a significant difference to the learning environment. Lighting, whether it’s the electric or natural daylight entering the space through windows, makes a major contribution to this overall ambience. The classroom lighting at Trinity Academy is designed to provide a bright and cheerful environment with an even spread of light to avoid shadows and contrast between different areas of the rooms. This approach contrasts with traditional lighting solutions, which focused on delivering light to the working surfaces and paid little attention to light levels on vertical surfaces and on the ceiling.

In classrooms with recessed ceilings, lighting is provided by semi-recessed luminaires which project below the surface sufficiently to provide a spill of light across the ceiling, while also illuminating the walls and working surfaces. In classrooms with high or solid ceilings, suspended luminaires provided a better solution, with the light output divided into direct (downwards) and indirect (upwards to light the ceiling) components.

Fittings close to walls are designed with an asymmetric component to light the walls and provide a smooth transition of light levels from here is no marked contrast between different surfaces in the classrooms. Research has shown that maintaining a 10:1 ratio of brightness levels between adjacent areas will provide a comfortable level of contrast.

In all cases the lighting had to take account of the extensive use of computers by students, ensuring the lighting did not create glare on screens. Minimum energy consumption was achieved by using high efficiency T5 fluorescent lamps which also provide a longer life than T8 lamps, so that maintenance cycles are extended and re-lamping costs are reduced.

Specialised teaching areas often require a more specialised solution that reflects the activities of the space. In domestic science classrooms, for instance, the luminaires installed are designed for food production and clean room applications and offer IP65 protection to prevent any ingress of substances from the ceiling void. This is combined with an easy to clean front face, using a TP(a) fire-resistant diffuser.

Sports halls also have specialist requirements and at Trinity Academy these were met by 4 x 54W T5 luminaires to provide a high light output, protected from impact by heavy gauge wire guards. Use of T5 tri-phosphor lamps also gives excellent colour rendering and visual acuity, essential for tracking projectiles and reading the coloured markings used for different types of court. To minimise the lighting energy consumption, the lighting is deployed in twin circuits so it can be set to deliver around 300 lux for normal use and over 500 lux for higher level competition.

Throughout all areas of the school including social and circulation areas, there is an emphasis on creating a bright and airy ambience that is conducive to high morale and providing the right environment for learning. Wherever possible, maximum use is made of natural daylight, with electric lighting designed to complement the natural light and ensurerequired illuminance levels are maintained.

Equal emphasis was given to the total cost of ownership of the lighting installation through selection of luminaires with efficient optics, combined with efficient light sources that offer a long life and extended maintenance cycles. These light sources have been standardised as much as possible to minimise the different types of lamps that have to be held in stock by the maintenance department.

Historically, Trinity Academy clearly illustrates that schools can benefit from the same best practice principles that commercial building operators now expect as a matter of course – without breaking the budgets.

Fire Safety
NEARLY 70 PERCENT OF SCHOOLS AUDITED FOR FIRE RISK are wedging open fire-doors, according to new national survey of accredited UK fire risk auditors, and fire safety officers within the fire & rescue services. Commissioned by Fireco, makers of Dorgard, the 'Kick the Wedge' survey, highlighted alarming trends and dangerous practices.

A senior loss prevention specialist with over 30 years experience who recently inspected over 200 premises in the education sector said, “Fire doors seem to be treated as an unnecessary evil which must be wedged open whenever possible. Although often occurring to ease access, firedoor wedging, particularly of self-closing firedoors in busy corridors or hallways, is a highly dangerous practice with potentially fatal consequences.”

Record levels of insurance claims for firedamaged properties in the UK are hitting the £2m a day in claims, according to the very latest figures from the Association of British Insurers, and last year's fire damage and business interruption costs are likely to again total over £1bn a year.

Simple, recognised and cost-efficient solutions exist, such as wire less release mechanisms for fire-doors that allow a fire-door to be retained open safely, using 'listening' technology that avoids costly disruption during installation. For example, the Dorgard range of wire less, firedoor hold-open devices allow a fire-door to be held open safely at any angle. Dorgard listens for the fire alarm and automatically releases the fire-door should the fire alarm sound.

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