top of page

Resources >  Classroom Furniture

Classroom Furniture

Part of my brief for the two year consultancy that I undertook for the World Bank in Sierra Leone in the early 1980s was to develop guidelines for the design and construction of primary school furniture.

At the time very little furniture was actually supplied to government primary schools and most pupils had to bring their own furniture to school every day (and take it home again after school).  The furniture that was supplied (either by the MOE, local NGOs or made by local carpenters) was made of local timber (usually un-seasoned), was in two standard sizes and consisted of narrow bench tops with either attached or loose bench seats notionally to seat two pupils but often seating three, four or more.  This type of furniture is heavy and inflexible in use and is not conducive to the introduction of more modern teaching methods.

The type of furniture used in a classroom has a direct effect on the teaching methods that can be used.  The heavy, bench-type furniture described above was acceptable for the chalkboard-centred teaching methods then in use where the pupils sat in rows facing the chalkboard but the new teaching methods that were being introduced demanded the use of furniture that could be arranged in other ways. 

The new teaching methods necessitated a degree of flexibility in the layout of the classroom furniture which would enable the formation of groups of different sizes (for example for group work or discussions), the ability to place desks together to form larger work surfaces, etc rather than merely being set in lines facing the chalkboard.

I experimented therefore with a variety of designs for chairs and desks, all made of timber which was the only reasonably priced, locally available material.  While maximum flexibility in layout and use would be provided by single desks and chairs, these would have been very expensive and therefore I decided on the use of double desks with single chairs which would give a degree of flexibility in layout at a more reasonable cost. 

A lot of research on classroom furniture design had been carried out in Asia and I found two UNESCO publications that were very useful in developing the furniture designs: Educational Building Digest No 18 which sets out basic anthropometric data and how to collect it and its use in furniture design and Educational Building Document No E2 which describes low-cost designs for school furniture that were developed by a Danish architect in Sri Lanka in the 1970s.

I used these designs as the basis for the primary school furniture designs that I developed.  The chair design that I used was pretty much the same as the Sri Lankan design but I was not very happy with their desk and came up with my own design.  I used these designs later for the furniture supplied to the primary schools in the Upgrading of Bo Teachers College Project (for a description see Sierra Leone Projects) and for the furniture supplied to the primary and junior secondary schools that were constructed under the World Bank East Timor Education Project (for a description see East Timor Projects).

The major benefits of these designs are that the furniture is very simple to manufacture and to repair in that there are no complicated joints; all members are fixed face-to-face with nails or screws and glue.  The furniture can therefore be easily made at the village level by local carpenters or a simple production line can be set up and the furniture can then be made in larger quantities (which is what we did for the East Timor Project).  The desks are braced which gives them further strength and it is impossible to rock the chairs backwards on the back legs which is the main cause of joint failure in traditionally designed chairs.  The chairs also stack.

If timber is locally available then I would recommend its use.  The alternatives are steel or plastic.  If steel is used then it tends to be much more expensive than timber as good quality steel (and good workmanship) has to be used if it is to last.  The cheap steel furniture that I have seen in use in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam breaks very easily at the welded joints and the feet can cause great damage to concrete and screed floors.  If plastic is used it has to be good quality hard plastic if it is to last and this again is expensive.  An interesting comparison of the materials used for making desks has been produced by the DFID-funded Human Development Resource Centre.

Documents attached:

  1. UNESCO Educational Building Digest No 18

  2. UNESCO Educational Building Document No E2

  3. East Timor Education Project: Furniture Designs

  4. HRDC: Desk construction materials and their longevity

bottom of page