New school construction guidelines are aimed at making education more inclusive and accessible while also ensuring that schools can serve their communities as safe and secure shelters during natural disasters.
By EVA HIRSCHI | FRONTIER
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis destroyed 50 percent of the government schools in the Ayeyarwady Delta; two years later, another cyclone damaged more than 350 schools in Rakhine State.
Myanmar is prone to natural disasters such as cyclones, floods and earthquakes, and when they occur, poorly built schools – some of which are made from bamboo – are easily damaged.
As part of an ambitious project to reform Myanmar’s education system, the Ministry of Education is planning to build 30,000 schools over the coming decade. With additional support from the Ministry of Construction, a school construction sub-working group has developed guidelines for safe, child-friendly and sustainable school buildings.
Led by the Ministry of Education, the group is co-chaired by Switzerland and World Vision; several NGOs and INGOs are also involved, as is the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF.
The guidelines were published in October and will be implemented from January 2019. Some schools have already been built according to the guidelines, with the help of international partners.
“The goal is to ensure that future schools resist natural hazards and provide a safe and inclusive environment for all children,” said Daw Khin Khin Gyi, acting deputy director general at the Department of Basic Education, at the project’s launch in Yangon.
To provide an environment conducive to learning, the 100-page booklet gives information on different aspects of school construction, ranging from sanitation facilities to site selection criteria, such as road access and connections to water, sewage and electricity.
It also gives guidance on locations for schools to minimise risks from natural disasters, such as not building close to steep slopes where landslides might occur during earthquakes.
There are also guidelines aimed at minimising earthquake damage based on a building’s dimensions. “It is recommended for the length of the building not to exceed three times the width since buildings with one of their overall sizes much smaller or larger than the other two, do not perform well during earthquakes,” the guidelines say.
To promote an inclusive environment for everybody, the schools will be built to accommodate children with disabilities.
Better learning environment
When U Nay Zaw, 25, first became a teacher, he worked at a government school in Mon State’s Mudon Township.
“The classroom was one big hall, divided only by curtains for the different grades. It was very noisy, so it was difficult to concentrate,” Nay Zaw recalled. The room was stifling in hot weather and running water was only available for a few hours a day. “The kids had to carry their own water if they wanted to use the toilet,” he told Frontier.
Such conditions are not unusual in Myanmar, where students often endure overcrowded classrooms and either non-existent or inadequate sanitation facilities, which are not well maintained or cleaned and can pose a health risk. These problems are particularly common at schools in remote areas, and in such an environment it is difficult for students to concentrate and study.
For the past two years, Nay Zaw has been teaching at the Pa Yaw He school in Mon’s Thanbyuzayat Township. The school was built in 2015 by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the European Union and Norwegian Refugee Council and was one of the first to follow the safe and child-friendly construction guidelines.
Nay Zaw said residents know that the school is the only safe building in the community to which they can seek refuge, and also the only one with a lightning conductor.
“They would seek shelter here in case of a natural disaster,” he said.
But it’s not only its safety which makes it a good learning environment. On a hill overlooking a forest, the reinforced concrete building houses classes for children from kindergarten to Grade 5. The classrooms are spacious and well lit, and ventilated by cool breezes through the open doors and windows.
“I like teaching here much better,” said Nay Zaw. “We have individual classrooms which are big; there are clean bathrooms with water 24 hours a day, and we also have a room for the teachers – that didn’t exist in my previous school.”
The guidelines attracted much praise at their launch in Yangon in October.
“These guidelines are so much needed,” said Ms Mary Pham, education coordinator at the Switzerland-based Lutheran World Federation, an INGO involved in school construction projects in Rakhine State.
“We are renovating 22 formal government schools across four townships in Rakhine State. For these, up until the child-friendly school construction guidelines, there has been no formal document to base our constructions in previous projects,” Pham told Frontier.
Pham said she had observed that many government schools do not meet the basic needs of their students. Sometimes they don’t have a toilet and children have to leave school and walk home to use one.
Lawmakers in the national legislature have in the past expressed concern about the poor quality of schools built by private contractors. In September 2014, the speaker of the Amyotha Hluttaw, or upper house, warned that contractors had to follow building codes when constructing schools and called for tighter supervision from the Ministry of Education.
U Myo Htut Myaing, a member of the Association of Myanmar Architects, agreed that the new guidelines were badly needed. “It is important to have guidelines, especially as there were not many safety standards in school construction before,” he said.
However, Myo Htut Myaing predicted challenges in adhering to the guidelines. “There is a need for a supervisor for the site to see whether everything is really constructed according to the plans,” he told Frontier. He had other criticisms, too.
“The guidelines are designed for rural areas only; there aren’t any guidelines for urban areas. And there are no playgrounds included,” he said.
“This is only a first edition,” said Mr Mark Haeussermann, programme manager of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, a Swiss federal government body, which was heavily involved in developing the guidelines. “We hope that these guidelines will be expanded in the future.”
SDC has already helped to build more than 80 schools and most had a playground, he added.
An unaffordable goal?
Adhering to the guidelines is likely to make the construction of new schools more expensive. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much, because it depends on the size of the school and materials used.
The four-classroom school at Thanbyuzayat, with furniture, toilets and a shallow well, cost about K100 million, and was co-financed by the three donors. The higher construction cost needed to be put into perspective, said Haeussermann, as the overall expense should balance out over the life of the facility. “In the end, safer schools will also last longer and will need less costly repairs,” he said.
He said that as well as funding the cost of building schools, budgets also needed to cover maintenance and repairs. “Ideally, each school should have a well-functioning maintenance committee.”
The Ministry of Education allocates 8.8 percent of its budget to school construction and officials acknowledged this was unlikely to be enough to meet its target of 30,000 new schools over the next 10 years.
“We will demand the parliament to provide bigger funding, as the current budget won’t be sufficient for all the school constructions we plan. And we hope that international partners will continue helping us co-financing some schools,” Khin Khin Gyi said.
UNICEF helped to co-finance the building of roughly 50 schools in Myanmar, and also assisted in developing guidelines for quality education.
UNICEF education officer U Thet Naing agrees on the importance of quality infrastructure to improve access to education – by enabling students with disabilities to attend classes, for example.
“But good infrastructure alone doesn’t make the education good,” he told Frontier.
Thet Naing criticised the emphasis on rote-learning in Myanmar’s teacher-centred education system, in which critical thinking and student participation are not encouraged.
“To improve our education,” he said, “we also need to improve the mindset and competency skills of the teachers by modifying the curriculum and assessment system.”