Gratnells tray - from storage workhorse to Education icon

Even those of us too old to remember it as a personal experience will probably have revisited it as a parent – that terrifying moment when we were first abandoned in a big, scary and unfamiliar place – School.

For most new learners, the initial trauma is brief and school soon becomes a familiar part of growing up. At the heart of this familiarisation process there will be some apparently mundane but nevertheless important little “milestones” for the new pupil.  And there will almost certainly be, at the heart of that journey, something that becomes the home for the child’s activities in school which teacher, child and parent will use to share successes and milestones along the way.

Even in an era dominated by the digital and informed by the IPhone, it’s a reassuringly familiar three-dimensional object which it’s claimed can be found in every one of Britain’s primary schools.

It’s a Gratnells tray. British designed and manufactured, stackable, portable, robust, colourful and often the very first school item that becomes the personal, permanent possession of its owner.  These particular trays are cleverly manufactured not just to stack and rack, their unique and jealously guarded design provides easy access and flat surfaces, ideal for labels, tabs and stickers.   Within minutes of arriving at school, Liam and Emma, Jamil and Jemma can have their own identifiable and personal space ready to start assembling all the early markers of their educational progress.  Books, drawings, collages, diaries and much more; everything that constitutes the means for proud children to show off their progress to their even prouder parents and which forms the basis of virtually every parents evening discussion.

The Gratnells tray’s dimensions have been adopted as international standards for classroom furniture, allowing them to be incorporated into designs around the world. The front shape is a registered trademark – quite unusual for a physical item – think Coke bottle and Toblerone. The lowered front, as well as being the registered mark, allows the contents to be seen, making selection easier and ‘stops’ can be added to prevent accidental full removal of the tray from the furniture, adding safety and preventing spillage. Paired runners are designed specifically for these trays, allowing them to be designed into furniture, and not just an ‘off the shelf’ generic tray. 

In addition, standardisation of shapes and dimensions allows trays to be transferred between furniture and classrooms and also for new trays to be introduced to the work area as a direct addition or replacement. Standardisation and continuity of supply ensure that both classroom décor and prep room subject differentiation can be maintained, with specific colours used, yellow for chemistry, blue for physics, green for biology and so on. Lastly, and most importantly, robustness in both design and manufacture ensures many trays are still in regular use after 20 years in a school.

Teachers know that there is also a need for structures and discipline with the new cohort and this first manifests itself by encouraging tidiness and clearing away. The Gratnells tray is often the teacher’s best friend here, making it easy for children to be tidy without tears.  Besides their own work there will be trays for teaching materials, art supplies and collections of everything from dried flowers to seashells.  Much potential chaos can be “cleared and stacked” by the children themselves.  Not only are they learning to work as individuals, they are being introduced to group activity.  

The importance of tidiness was highlighted by teacher Erin Klein. In an article entitled “Decrease Clutter to Increase Creativity” she noted that the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture recognises the importance of people having control over the spaces they can call their own.

A report by Jamieson et al as far back as the year 2000 detailed some guiding principles of design within the educational environment, many of which are embodied in the applications of tray Gratnells tray - from storage workhorse to Education iconbased systems, including; ‘maximising the inherent flexibility within each space’; ‘make use of the vertical dimension of facilities’; ‘maximise teacher and student control’; ‘maximising student access to and ownership of the learning environment’.

Now in the fifth decade of its existence, the Gratnells tray is continuing to provide the new generation of learners a safe place for work, early ownership of personal space within the learning room and individual recognition within the group.

Demand for the trays is huge - in the case of the Harlow-based company which produces them that means manufacturing literally millions of them every year, with an estimated 50 million in regular use.  Produced in 45 standard colours, these are robust items which go on and on.   More than 65 countries across the world order them and they are manufactured in a factory which works around the clock every day of the year to meet demand.

The “Clever Classrooms” report published in 2015 and provided by the HEAD (Holistic Evidence and Design) project led by Professor Peter Barrett, provides clues which help to explain the magnitude of this demand.  It highlights the need for flexibility as part of the individualisation process, it also identifies “good and accessible storage”, and “flexible opportunities for the display of information and of pupils’ work” as important factors. In this context, it’s hard to beat the eminently portable, stackable and rackable versatility of the tray.  With its huge colour range it also adds to the creation of a stimulating learning environment.   As HEAD concluded, “coloured environments have significant effects on pupils’ learning activity and their wellbeing”.

Not content with its life as a facilitator of good order, the company has developed a range of creative, original and downright quirky applications under the title “What’s in My Tray?”

From a series of practical and experimental “STEM” projects developed by the well-known education and outreach consultant and outdoor learning specialist, 

Dr Katherine Forsey, to fun events on social media such as offering “teabreaks in a tray” to hard-pressed teachers, this concept is taking hold in a big way.

Other global manufacturers such as Fischer Technique, Staedtler and Henkel Pritt Stick use the trays to promote their own products to the education sector and the company’s social media carries regular updates on new applications and ideas.  Next steps include the development of a dedicated “What’s in My Tray” logo.

This is the practical demonstration of all the ways in which this simple storage receptacle has escaped the limits of its original purpose.  Now accredited as the only official Montessori tray it has become the active facilitator of practical learning experiences, in addition to being a convenient delivery and control mechanism.  Now it is synonymous with fun, individual or group activities, creativity, practical science and resource allocation.  And at the end of all that, it can be used in the tidying up process too.

Find out more about Gratnells here:


September 25, 2018

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