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Historical Context of the School Buildings and Facilities Programme

UNESCO’s action in the area of school buildings and facilities is innovative on several accounts, as demonstrated first and foremost by the option taken to set up specialized operational units within other educational services, usually those responsible for educational policy and planning. A good educational planning policy can only produce results if an educational building policy is developed at the same time. UNESCO’s architects have had to be bold and determined in their efforts to persuade funding agencies, as well as enterprises more amenable to modernistic and large-scale projects, to accept prototypes and programmes for the construction of school buildings by villagers using the raw materials (clay, straw, bamboo) that they use for their own houses, not to mention the training of ‘barefoot architects’. Finally, the simultaneous design of functional educational spaces and school furniture, developed by the regional centres, was also an original and fruitful approach.

Towards the end of the 1950s, the industrialized countries started to take an interest in educational buildings both to rationally organize, or even industrialize, educational construction, and to propose that space be planned to take account of the leading educational innovations of the day: team teaching, use of television, community-based learning, etc. In 1958 the Ford Foundation established the first educational facilities laboratory in New York (Educational Facilities Laboratories, EFL), soon to be followed by the creation of school building information centres in the Netherlands and in Germany. In most countries, the education sector was not responsible for school facilities. This was incumbent upon services responsible for civil engineering, the actual construction being entrusted to local architects. Educators had few opportunities to participate in building design or in matching facilities to educational needs. In this respect, UNESCO was a pioneer in the integration of school building services into a much larger structure responsible for education.

In 1961, UNESCO established an educational facilities section at Headquarters and three regional school building centres in Africa, Asia, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, in parallel to the educational policy and planning units. The objective was to help implement plans to achieve education for all in these regions and their work focused on basic research: space and comfort norms, school mapping, equipment design and training national specialists in various aspects of school building. To strengthen the multidisciplinary approach of educational projects, in 1973 the Asian and African regional centres, as well as the policy and planning units, were integrated into the Regional Offices for Education. However, the Educational Building Centre for Latin America and the Caribbean (CONESCAL), established in Mexico in co-operation with the Organization of American States continued to function until 1984.

Internationally, the impact of the creation of specialized educational facilities units was considerable. In 1962, the International Conference on Educational Building, organized in London by the United Kingdom National Commission and UNESCO, recommended the extension of the programme, and even the creation of an international centre also serving Europe and North America. The latter was finally created by OECD in 1972 in the form of a ‘Programme on Educational Building’ (PEB) grouping together fifteen European countries, together with Australia and New Zealand. UNESCO also co-operates with the International Union of Architects (IUA) on a regular basis, especially in organizing international seminars.

Model Kindergarten in Gaza City. This project was financed by Daimler-Benz, implemented by the Palestinian Authority and UNESCO. One of the Organization’s constant concerns has been to design functional spaces, to establish criteria for the analysis and conception of buildings, to define space and comfort norms adapted to given physical and cultural environments, whilst controlling and, if possible, reducing costs. School buildings and furniture are a priority investment area for the development banks, and UNESCO has been entrusted with a number of extrabudgetary projects in all regions with more than 34 million dollars disbursed during 1984-1993. In this way, the Organization has assisted Member States to design, cost, and implement large-scale building programmes; it has also been called upon to draw up blueprints for educational buildings and to initiate the mass production of ergonomic, low-cost school furniture. There has been co-operation with the World Food Programme on the design of schools to be built within the framework of the latter’s support service programmes, in return for food distribution. Another activity is emergency intervention in the reconstruction of buildings destroyed by natural and other disasters. UNESCO has, in particular, developed norms for the protection of school buildings against cyclones or earthquakes.

The conclusions of an evaluation requested by the Executive Board and carried out by an external evaluator in 1988 state, inter alia:

  1. the programme has had a substantial impact in a large number of countries; this was achieved, in particular, through the specialized training of local professionals and building technicians, the stimulation of community participation in construction, the design and construction of innovative school buildings and furniture of a new type and the dissemination of easily applicable technical documents and publications;
  2. UNESCO’s approach in this field has been innovative and determined, to a great extent, by the relationship established between application-oriented research and the education and training of architects, planners and skilled craftsmen;
  3. the unique experience UNESCO has built up over the past 25 years (community and user participation, application of appropriate technology in building educational facilities, together with the innovative character of the projects) forms a sound basis for the development of an effective future policy in this area.’

Following the recommendations of the World Conference on Education for All (1990), the Organization developed a new concept, that of low-cost multi-purpose educational facilities, managed by the local community and capable of hosting a whole range of activities under the same roof: fundamental education, literacy, adult education, first aid, cultural events and community development. UNESCO and the Elf Foundation have launched a first pilot project in Venezuela. Other multi-purpose education centres are now being built in several countries including Afghanistan, Argentina, Cameroon, Greece, Mexico and Mozambique. An illustrated index of the numerous pilot projects undertaken in this field, as well as a more detailed description and historical bibliography, are contained in the CD-ROM (Vol. I) accompanying this brochure.

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UNESCO's Educational Buildings and Furniture Programme