Planning for the worst

Protecting schools from natural hazards

Annette Gough, Briony Towers

Government and governance, Education | Australia

28 August 2019

Australia’s policymakers are building a framework to reduce the risk and impact of natural hazards, but there is a need for a complementary education strategy, Annette Gough and Briony Towers write.

Preparing responses to natural and human-made hazards starts at an early age.

There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster, only natural hazards. Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) aims to reduce the damage caused by natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, droughts, and cyclones, through an ethic of prevention.

In 2018 the Australian Government released a National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework. This recognised that natural hazards are becoming more frequent and intense, that essential services are interconnected, that people and assets are more exposed and vulnerable, and that disaster impacts are long term and complex.

The National Framework complements the United Nations Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction which built on previous international frameworks around disaster risk reduction, but significantly broadened the scope to focus on both natural and man-made hazards and related environmental, technological, and biological risks.un

Educating people on how to prevent, mitigate, prepare for hazard events – such as bushfires, cyclones, flooding, and other extreme weather events – so that they do not become disasters is a challenge for all sectors of society.

The National DRR Framework recognises the need to increase awareness of the potential long-term and highly uncertain impacts of disasters through formal and informal education and community-driven engagement. It also identifies disaster risk education as a key priority for action.

More on this: Townsville floods demonstrates need for better disaster planning

Disaster risk reduction and resilience education is particularly important in schools. The National DRR Framework notes that links between policy, research, operational expertise, and formal education should be strengthened to support disaster risk information capabilities.

There is currently no formal education strategy to accompany the National DRR Framework. This is an urgent need at national, state, and territory levels.

Fortunately, there have been developments at the international level that can help guide the development of an education strategy.

The Global Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction & Resilience in the Education Sector (GADRRRES) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNIDSR) have developed the Comprehensive School Safety Framework, which aims to reduce the risks of all hazards to the education sector.

The goals for Comprehensive School Safety (CSS) are to protect students and educators from death, injury and harm in schools, plan for continuity of education through all expected hazards and threats, safeguard education sector investments, and strengthen risk reduction and resilience through education.

Together these form the basis for the three pillars of the CSS Framework. These pillars need to be addressed by education policy at national, state, regional, district and local school site levels.

More on this: The Brief: Designing for disaster

As GADRRRES argues, CSS must be addressed through education policies and plans aligned with disaster management at national, regional, district, and local school site levels, and incorporating all three pillars. At the moment this is not happening in Australia.

The Australian curriculum includes content that provides opportunities to engage students with understanding disasters and developing appropriate responses to reduce risk.

Curriculum areas with relevant content include health and physical education, humanities, arts, social sciences, and science.

While some of this content is related to disaster risk reduction and resilience, it is generally not related to school emergency management planning.

School disaster management is concerned with assessing infrastructural, environmental, and social risks, as well as developing capacity and planning for educational continuity.

All of this is generally encompassed within school emergency management planning.

Schools in areas that are exposed to natural hazards such as bushfire or floods have specific emergency plans developed alongside their local emergency services.

More on this: Changing the mindset for dealing with natural disasters

However, these emergency plans are often developed without student involvement or incorporation of curriculum considerations, which means that students, and their parents, may be unprepared if an emergency occurs.

A final consideration is the Worldwide Initiative for Safe Schools (WISS), a government-led global partnership for advancing safe school implementation at the national level which was launched in 2014. The initiative promotes good practices and achievements in school safety for replication in other countries and regions.

It helps identify challenges and offers technical assistance and particular expertise around the three pillars to support interested Governments in implementing school safety at the national level. Currently, Australia has not committed to WISS, so this is another policy challenge.

The sector, however, is not short on ideas. The Disaster Resilient Australia New Zealand School Education Network (DRANZSEN) consists of representatives from education and emergency services, NGOs, universities, local government, and community groups.

On 30 August 2019, the national DRANZSEN forum will be held to explore possible solutions to the issue.

We recognise that a comprehensive approach to disaster risk reduction and resilience education may be yet another pressure on an already overcrowded curriculum, but it does not need to be, as the content is already there.

What is needed is an authentic whole school approach that brings together the three pillars as part of formal education. This kind of approach can hit the sweet spot in the middle of the CSS Framework, ensuring that school communities are well prepared for any emergency.

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