Where to build new schools: A methodology for ministries

25 March 2024


The Kaibola Primary School built with stilts in Milne Bay Province, Papau New Guinea.

Schools are part and parcel of their surroundings – whether near coastlines, fault lines, or in complex political or socioeconomic contexts. They cannot be understood – or planned for and managed – apart from their environment.

A new IIEP Technical note is now available to help ministries of education pinpoint optimal locations for schools by using a geospatial methodology that assesses hazards, risks, and other variables to determine where to build new schools, or which existing schools to refurbish based on existing hazards.

“Once hazards have been mapped at the local level, geospatial data on education facilities can be used to triangulate this information and subsequently identify those facilities that are most at risk of being impacted by hazards,” write the authors, Germán Vargas Mesa and Amélie A. Gagnon, from IIEP-UNESCO, and Ayeisha Sheldon from the United Nations Satellite Centre (UNOSAT)

Amid climate change, school locations are crucial

With one billion children at extremely high risk from climate change impacts worldwide, understanding the environmental landscape is paramount before embarking on new school construction.

Yet, choosing where to build new schools is influenced by not only environmental issues, but also social, political, and economic ones. Traditionally, micro-planning and school-mapping techniques provided some direction in finding ideal school locations. However, there was often a lack of environmental data, and information on existing infrastructure or current norms on school placement was conducted using rough estimates, if at all.

To fill this gap, the new methodology provides a way to assess risks related to natural hazards, including those due to climate change, and how they relate to other factors and local norms and laws on education to better plan for the location of schools using a multi-criteria decision analysis technique.

Discover the model in action

The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), OpenDevEd, and UNOSAT used the geospatial model to undertake education sector analyses in the Caribbean, including some of the world's most disaster-prone countries.

On Antigua Island, data from open data sources only showed a few education facilities with limited information. UNOSAT mapped 77 additional schools from primary through to tertiary level, as shown here in interactive maps from UNOSAT.


Making smart investments in school infrastructure

With school construction representing a high investment for ministries of education worldwide, it’s vital that schools are built and maintained in places where learners and teachers can thrive.

In part 1, the authors show how to identify existing education facilities located in hazard-prone areas that can face flooding, volcanoes, pollution, or famine, for example. This is then used for Part 2 of the methodology, where a multi-criteria decision analysis model identifies areas that are more suitable for new education facilities to be located.

Users can select and weigh various criteria from existing hazards, terrain, land cover, and connectivity when analyzing potential areas for new schools or where to relocate school facilities, helping to ensure that learning occurs in low-hazard-risk areas or that schools are built with the relevant specifications to make education facilities more resilient to disasters. For example, schools in flood-prone areas may need stilts, while those in earthquake-prone areas need to follow specific building guidance.

The methodology can also help identify safer locations to which existing schools could be relocated to, when retrofitting or maintenance is not an option. And combined with infrastructure information pulled from Education Management Information Systems (EMIS), it can also help planners prioritize at-risk schools in a school improvement programme.

Using free, open-source data, software, and literature, users can apply, replicate, or customize it. It also shares guidance on data sources, as well as step-by-step instructions for geospatial techniques.