Could you design a better school for Burma’s children?

Andrew Buncombe

burma school one 300x225 Could you design a better school for Burmas children?

There’s not a lot that can prepare you for both the sadness and optimism that surrounds the schools and shelters set up along the Thai border for the thousands of Burmese children forced to flee for their lives with their families. Their stories are pitiful, their future uncertain and yet it is difficult, when talking to these youngsters, not to be moved by their courage and hope.

When David Cole and Louise McKillop recently visited some of these schools in Mae Sot they too were struck not just by the deficiencies but by the potential. “We saw children as young as two or three sleeping in the back of classrooms. Some of the children board at the schools, spending the week there, which allows parents the time to work and seek out a little more money,” said Ms McKillop. “Many work as rubbish collectors or workers in the fields and a lucky few as maids or cleaners within the homes of Thai families.”

The schools in the border towns are constantly expanding as the flow of refugees, most of them members of the Karen ethnic group, continues to pour across from Burma.  In the semi-permanent camps that run along the border north and south of Mae Sot and which are overseen by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, it is estimated there are up to 140,000 people. They have no legal status in Thailand and yet cannot safely return to their own country under the current conditions.

When the pair asked one of the teachers why they were so many very young children, the teacher told them: “We get new families crossing the border all the time. Secondly, when the children reach an age where they can make money for the family as labourers they are taken out of schooling. It is heart breaking for the children who want to stay on, but can’t”

Some of the facilities in Mae Sot and the other communities are markedly better than others. Whereas many of the schools overseen by the Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee, an umbrella group of more than 45 schools, are essentially just shacks, others have concrete floors and proper roofs. The difference in standards is remarkable, as is the impact such improvements have on the children.

burms school 2 300x225 Could you design a better school for Burmas children?

“We visited Shwem Tha Zin school, which was in desperate need of funding. As we walked into the tiny classrooms we looked over and saw thirty toddlers sat together on the floor. One little boy was very upset and could not stop crying, he was one of the newest arrivals,” said Ms McKillop. “It is very difficult not to get emotionally attached to the children and the school.”

Ms McKillop and Mr Cole both work for the British charity Building Trust International and after their visit to the facilities in Mae Sot they hit upon the idea of trying to come up with a better classroom for the children they had met. “The seed of an idea was planted in our minds to create a set of school buildings that could be constructed on a site and then if the need arose could be deconstructed and moved to another site, another school or back to Burmese territory,” explained Mr Cole. “The task is a hard one as the buildings cannot be perceived as temporary by those using them. They need to convey a place of security that any school building should, while also being composed of light and durable enough materials to be relocated.”

They decided to try and solve the problem by turning it into a competition. Now they are challenging designers and architects from around the world to come up with a solution. “We decided that launching an international design competition would not only help get the best design but would also raise global awareness of the issues in Burma.”

Mr Cole said the competition will provide the funding for the build by charging small entry fees . The final building will be handed over to the BMWEC and will be used this as a model to investigate the potential of rolling out further modular school buildings in areas affected by similar factors. Full details of the competition can be found at the website of his organisation,

Mr Cole added: “We hope to show that design and architecture can be a tool for positive social change, not as a reinforcement of the divide between rich and poor which it seems to be becoming.”

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    If you would like more information on Building Trust International, on projects both in the UK and overseas please do visit our website and join our facebook page. We will continue to update both of these with our current projects and there are some great opportunities for people to contact us and get involved. Many thanks for taking the time to read the article above and to the independent for giving the subject more coverage.  

  • Deborah Benbrook

    wow, great coverage on such a sad situation.  hope David & Louise succeed.  all the best guys

  • Jsellen

    The importance of McKillop and Cole s work can not be over stated. Building Trust for whom they work are taking an innovative approach to address a much needed problem – providing structures to offer shelter and education that whilst will provide the much needed spaces to offer education and the advancement of knowledge to local children,  also take really seriously the plight of these children living in communities which may have to up and move at any point due to the persecution they continue to be subjected too. Building Trust is exciting as it is embarking on calling the involvement of those who can share their design expertise and bring real change. Cant wait to see the results of this project and how great it is that local people will be so involved. Lets hope the Independent follows this one through and keeps us updated!

  • Strahinja Spasic

    Its a wonderful story of encouragement and support in our selfish world. Hope there were much more news like this and much more people like Mr. Cole and Mrs. McKillop.

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