If you left school 40 years ago, variety, flexibility and ergonomic design aren’t the qualities you instantly associate with school furniture.
Back then, it was solid, unmoveable and identical. When you arrived at school and sat at your first desk, your feet wouldn’t touch the floor and by the time you left for the big wide world, sitting up straight would leave your thighs firmly wedged under the desk.
About the only thing you could say for those desks is they were built to last.
School furniture is still built to last, but designs have changed radically, driven by modern educational requirements, greater concern about appearances and the arrival of standards for modern manufacturers to meet.
That might sound like a challenge – but, at Barnsley-based Metalliform, they see it as an opportunity.
Metalliform also makes stadium seating and, earlier this year, acquired Chesterfield-based playground equipment manufacturer Timberline, but education continues to be its prime market.
Managing director Will Hinks reckons the 90-plus employee company has up to 20 per cent of the UK market. It holds more local authority contracts than any of its competitors, has customers from the north of Scotland to Cornwall and, following the introduction of European standards, the company sees opportunities to grow export markets.
Mr Hinks says the European market had been very dismissive of British producers, but the development of the BS EN 1729 British and European standard for educational furniture has opened the door.
“One of the things that has helped the business in recent years has been keeping up with changes in the market and one of the key drivers has been the new European standards,” says Mr Hinks.
“The standard has strengthened the ergonomic requirements for furniture that goes into schools. Previously it had to be strong and robust, now it has to be posturally correct, recognising the problems posture can pose for long- term back health and that bad posture habits begin with little children at school.
“We were one of the first companies to redevelop our ranges to meet these standards. Although it is not compulsory, we have led the way and have definitely benefited from that.
“Our postural chair has gone from nothing to become our biggest selling chair and is being sold in Australia and Spain.”
The previous Labour Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme has also boosted the company’s business in recent years and played to one of its strengths – the ability to adapt and develop new products and to supply a wide range.
“The new school build programme encouraged schools to not only have grand new buildings, but to think more than they would have done in the past about the quality of the furniture going in to them,” says Mr Hinks.
“There was also a feeling that each school had to be different from the one around the corner. We offer a lot of choice. We have half a million different product combinations and 250,000 options on one of our table ranges alone.”
As Building Schools for the Future comes to an end, the emphasis has shifted indoors, from external appearances, and that has put more focus on furniture, which benefits Metalliform.
Meanwhile, robust though school furniture is, there is still a strong replacement market in which the Hoyland firm is a significant player.
Metalliform has also benefited from its ability and willingness to design furniture to meet specific needs, including developing adjustable height tables for a Barnsley special school that needed them to accommodate pupils in wheelchairs.
Design is usually customer or market driven, says Mr Hinks, and “specials” can rapidly become part of the standard range as other clients see how something developed for one school can also meet their needs.