Education: How learning becomes a pain in the back: Cheap plastic chairs and trendy bags are causing physical problems for children, says Lynn ten Kate

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The Independent Online
Are you sitting comfortably? Unfortunately, for many of our schoolchildren the answer is no. Indeed, looking at a class of 12-year-olds, whose heights range from 4ft 6in to 6ft, it is difficult to see how they could all be seated comfortably at the same standard-size chair and table.

The posture of the present generation leaves much to be desired. It is known in teaching circles as 'the camel effect' and school furniture, and even more, school policy, does little to help.

For children at secondary school, the rot really set in when the system was changed in the mid-Seventies to do away with the base classroom. It became unfashionable for children to remain in the same room to which teachers came to give the relevant lessons. Instead, each time the bell rang, pupils gathered all their books and began the long march to another part of the building. It wasn't the walk that was the problem, it was and is the quantity and weight of books that have to be carried. I remember the secret delight of desks, in which we kept not only exercise and text books but all manner of forbidden and personal possessions, and how much frustration at the unfairness of teachers could he released by 'accidentally' allowing the lid to fall with a crash.

Now our local comprehensive leases lockers to students at pounds 10 a year, but they are so far away from the classrooms it is impossible to get to them between lessons and there is always the danger of forgetting some vital book. Much better to pile everything into a bag and cart it around, although it may weigh a ton. Gone, too, are the old-fashioned satchels which spread weight evenly across your back. Nowadays books are carried in fashionable bags that place weight on one shoulder, straining muscles and ligaments and often causing permanent damage.

What can parents and teachers do? The first thing is to acknowledge the damage being done. Penny Slade, a physiotherapist on the School Furniture Committee of the National Back Pain Association (NBPA), lectures to teachers and pupils at every opportunity. She reckons it will take 20 years to raise public awareness of the problem - 'The same length of time it took everyone to realise that dental caries could be prevented in children.'

The NBPA offers a book called Better Backs for Children, which met with a resounding silence when it was sent to every school in Britain.

Levent Caglar, an ergonomist at the Department of Health, points out that although there are standards for size, strength and design of school furniture, these are often ignored and the new delegated budgeting allows heads to choose the furniture they buy.

In practice this means the cheapest, stacking polypropylene chairs. Nor does Mr Caglar think the European regulations, soon to be brought in, will help as they are less stringent than the present British standards. He points to Scandinavia where design is taken seriously and some school furniture is adjustable.

My own daughter, nearly 6ft tall at 14, spent years hunched over low tables. I suggested raising the height by propping books under the table legs, but this met with sniggers and staff disapproval. My other suggestion of using a shopping bag on wheels to transport the books was equally unacceptable. Now, in her twenties, she has permanent problems with her shoulders which I put down to six years of lugging books around at school, followed by three more years of carrying heavy law tomes at university.

'Better Backs for Children' is available from the NBPA, Elmtree Road, Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 8ST at pounds 2.75.

(Photograph omitted)