Back to Victorian values for classroom posture and poise

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The high chairs and sloping desks of the Victorian classroom have been largely abandoned, but osteopaths say their return could help prevent many back problems suffered by children.

As many as 25 per cent of children over 13 suffer back pain - nearly three-quarters of a million in total - it is claimed, with many of the problems due to bad posture and sitting for long periods during growth spurts.

Within the adult population, the United Kingdom has one of Europe's worst problems with about 116 million working days lost to back-pain in 1994- 95, compared with 59 million in 1988. The problem costs industry pounds 5bn a year and pounds 480m in National Health Service resources.

Yet while tight legislation governs furniture-safety for adults, there are no such stringent tests for children and over the past two decades concern has been growing.

"Generally, the population is getting a lot taller so that immediately puts more stresses on to the lower back, particularly during growth spurts," Anne Redgrave, an orthopaedic doctor specialising in back pain, told the BBC programme Watchdog.

In America a study of 500 teenagers found that 56 per cent of the boys and 30 per cent of the girls were suffering from a degenerative spinal disease.

"We have seen a great increase in inquiries from parents even in the last 18 months," said Norma Montague, of the National Back Pain Association. "Children can have problems which take years to develop."

"It makes me very cross that we're not actually trying to do something about a problem which is preventable," said Dr Redgrave. "If we were to change the furniture that these children were being forced to sit in ... we could probably almost eliminate back pain for this group of children."

Ms Montague added: "Plastic bucket seats encourage the spine to sit slumped in a 'C' shape, instead of the natural 'S' shape, which is not good news - and [the seats] are not adapted for different sizes. A little 11-year- old has to use the same desk as a thumping great 16-year-old ... We would recommend that sloping desks be reinstituted."

Desks that are reinterpreting the Victorian style are now used by three out of four schoolchildren in Denmark. The furniture has height-adjustable seats as well as desks and can be altered to suit the individual child.

David Newbound, who runs the Children's Seating Centre in London, and who also chairs the Back Pain Association's working party on children said: "These styles allow children to sit back for listening as well as forward for writing and reading without damaging their spines."

But he added that prices may put them out of the range of most schools who usually spend between pounds 15 and pounds 20 on individual chairs and desks. The Scandinavian models cost pounds 200 each.

But a foam insert for existing bucket seats is being produced which, Mr Newbound said,"would only add around pounds 10-pounds 12 to the price of the chair".

Action is urgently needed, the Back Pain Association warns, otherwise we are storing up problems for the future.

This issue is investigated by Watchdog HealthCheck at 7pm on BBC1 on Thursday.