On any given day, more than one billion of the world’s children go to school to get an education – one of the most reliable pathways out of poverty.

To “ensure inclusive and quality education for all and to promote lifelong learning” (SDG 4), UNICEF supports governments to set standards for securing safe, rights-based, quality education for every child through the Child-Friendly School (CFS) model. It provides a comprehensive range of interventions from providing school infrastructure to ensuring child-centred education is in a safe, healthy and holistic environment for improved learning outcomes.

To enable procurement of locally produced child-friendly school furniture and play-based learning, the Product Innovation Unit based at UNICEF Supply Division initiated a project that includes the development of local procurement guidelines covering all aspects of furniture planning such as sourcing, production, delivery and maintenance; in addition, a portfolio of UNICEF-developed child-friendly furniture designs is made available to countries, with the aim to further expand the portfolio based on local designs.

Building a sustainable school environment for children   

Supplies are essential in ensuring children’s rights are upheld so they can meet their basic needs and expand their opportunities to reach their full potential, especially for children and youth living in rural and remote areas where resources and services are limited. Between 2008 and 2016, UNICEF procured and supplied large quantities of furniture worth US$72 million (US$10 million per year on average) – particularly in Africa and Asia – since they are key when creating child-friendly learning spaces.

©UNICEF/Sorensen/Malawi/2014
©UNICEF/Sorensen/Malawi/2014

However, unsuitable school furniture presents a particularly burdensome problem in low-resource environments. Observations from the field have highlighted that school furniture tends to be inadequately designed both structurally and ergonomically, not really suited for its intended purpose and often using materials of inappropriate quality and origin – resulting in a short service life ranging from one to three years. Research has also highlighted that in low-resource settings, shortages of school furniture can exist as it is one of the most expensive components of education and thus has a low priority in school budgets (Eckelman, Erdil, Haviarova; 2000).

Field trials conducted in Malawi and most recently in Rwanda on the use of the local procurement guidelines and the child-friendly furniture designs yielded positive feedback. “This collaboration between the Supply Division and UNICEF Rwanda is an essential initiative. School furniture is an important component of play-based learning, and this partnership will lead to durable solutions, while building the capacity of the local market,” said Oliver Petrovic, UNICEF Rwanda Deputy Representative.

The Rwandan Education Board (REB) as well as authorities in Malawi have shown support for standardizing school furniture in all schools in Rwanda and Malawi based on UNICEF’s designs and guidelines. It is now UNICEF’s hope that these designs together with the procurement guidelines will be adopted globally to enable:

1) Facilitation of activity and play based learning:

Studies have shown a direct connection between comfortable school furniture and increased learning and development (Milanese, Grimmer; 2004). Activity and play based teaching methods can be facilitated with the new, easy to move, light-weight modular furniture which is designed to give teachers better access to each and every student in the classroom and to accommodate various learning and play activities.

A school girl in Malawi carrying the light-weight furniture based on UNICEF’s designs which enable activity and play-based learning ©UNICEF/Sorensen/Malawi/2014
UNICEF’s “Re-invention” desk design includes a chalk board for personalization creating a sense of ownership and responsibility ©UNICEF/Sorensen/Malawi/2014

2) Local capacity for sustainable growth:

An efficient use of raw materials in a low-resource setting will have a positive impact on the environment. Furthermore, local production of furniture will also help build local capacity of manufacturers and reduce reliance on importing ready-made goods. While boosting national economy, local production makes maintenance a lot easier and lengthens the life span of furniture.

UNICEF is committed to ensuring development of solutions which are local and sustainable. The organisation supports government agendas as depletion of resources and economic crises, stretch resources the world is willing to devote to education. Through simple designs and local procurement guidelines, UNICEF is not only supporting local markets but enabling nurturing and healthy school environment so that children can reach their full potential and actively participate in the development of their community.

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