• A school should be a safe place for children. But every year, children's lives are put in danger when poorly built schools collapse or are damaged in floods, fires and other disasters. A community-based approach to school construction is one solution. It's easiest to explain with a story…

    In southwestern Guatemala, in the small community of María del Mar, an abandoned school sat crumbling away under intense sun and heavy rain. The government had built the foundations two years before, but the walls had never got more than waist high.

    María del Mar had recently become home to a group of indigenous people who had lost their homes during decades of civil war and land rights protests. Resettled by the government, with little other assistance, they now needed houses and a completed school for the children.

    The community teamed up with a non-government organisation (NGO) and set a goal of finishing a new school within a year. Their priority was to make sure it was safe.

    School is the one place every child should attend, but unsafe school buildings put the lives of hundreds of thousands of children at risk every year.

    guatemala-4-The children of María del Mar were involved in choosing a safe site for their school / Photo by David Wardell

    Under the shade of a large tarp, the NGO architects laid out large sheets of paper showing the available land and asked everyone to think about the risks of different potential sites for the school. Both adults and children gathered around the paper and began to draw. They knew the site of the government school regularly flooded, that the foundations were too weak to use. They knew they didn't want the entrance to the school near the road – that same day, a child had been struck by a passing motorbike. And they pointed out areas that easily got muddy and where streams developed during the rainy season.

    Once these risks had been marked up, a small model of a school was placed on the paper. Parents and children worked together to move the model around the paper, looking for a safe place for the school. After everyone had shared their opinion, the community made a decision about where to build the new school. Together, they chose a site that would keep the children in the community safe from harm.

    This is a community-based approach to building a school.

    The architects from the NGO and the community of María del Mar pooled their knowledge last year to make sure they built a school that children could attend every day, without fear or danger. The architects brought their technical knowledge and could talk to the community about safe site selection, while the community could share their knowledge of the local hazards.

    Anyone involved in school construction needs to make sure schools are built as spaces to not only learn, but to keep children safe from danger. Making sure the community is involved from start to finish is the best way to make this happen.

    A community-based approach involves the community from planning and design, all the way through to construction, even maintenance years after the school is built. It takes into account the vital knowledge of the community so their new school is more resistant to hazards. It gives communities the chance to learn new skills. It means everyone in the community becomes caretakers who understand how the school was built and what makes it safe. And it can even lead to the safer construction of homes.

    Most importantly, it means children can learn, safe from disaster.

    Save the Children and Risk RED, with funding from the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), have developed educational resources on how to involve the local community when assessing and building schools. Resources include a Safer Schools website, videos, tools, case studies and manual, available in English, Spanish, Arabic, Nepali and French.