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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Breakfast program aids ailing education system

Breakfast program aids ailing education system

breakf.jpg
breakf.jpg

Children and the Ang Seng primary school in Takeo province make the most of their free breakfast.

A

N experimental free breakfast program aimed at boosting school attendance has succeeded

in swelling enrollments from 50 students to 70-to-80 students per teacher and is

encouraging parents to enrol under-age children at schools where the breakfast program

is operating.

At the 900-pupil Ang Seng school in the Bati district of Takeo, 14-year-old Yam Sitia,

finishing a plate of rice at his desk on a recent morning , told the Post that he

and his two siblings changed schools when they heard about the breakfast. He said

he didn't know yet whether eating before classes will make him a better student,

but he wouldn't be missing any school.

The school switching is a side effect of an experimental breakfast program begun

last year by the Education Quality Improvement Project (EQIP), funded by the World

Food Program and the World Bank, for 37,000 pupils at 64 primary schools in Takeo

in an effort to get more children to attend school, stay longer hours and pay better

attention.

Now the program is being expanded to about 200 schools in Takeo, Kampot and Kampong

Cham. Its spread has been slowed because many schools haven't yet opened due to flooding,

but by the end of the year 100,000 to 120,000 children are expected to be attending

schools with breakfast.

Despite the school switching, the program is much heralded by its supporters.

Kampuchean Action For Primary Education , a local NGO, is taking the idea a step

further with a program offering quarterly take-home rations of food to the families

of girls in grades 4, 5, and 6 in an effort to cut the dropout rate among girls.

Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, hopes to see the breakfast program expanded

in the next two years to clusters of schools it supports in Cambodia.

"It is very expensive but it helps the children, so we consider it good, irrespective

of the cost," said Unicef education project officer Nabendra Dahal.

Vin McNamara, chief technical adviser for EQIP, said at $20 per pupil per year, breakfast

is a costly, but worthwhile option.

"At the moment it is establishing a model," McNamara said. "One cannot

see it being sustained nationwide forever, but there's an argument for sustaining

it in certain clusters."

McNamara conceded that classroom overcrowding in schools where the breakfast program

is operating is a problem, but added that classroom overcrowding was universal due

to the Cambodian Government's devotion of only 8 percent of the national budget to

education.

Pledges by the Government to raise the expenditure to 15 percent have gone unfulfilled.

More schools are needed, but the biggest problem educators face is the quality of

teaching, he said. Teachers earn a Government salary of only 80,000 riel ($20) a

month, compelling them to moonlight at other jobs to make a living.

The school feeding program doesn't aim to change all this, but the sponsors said

that if they encourage parents to send children to school, it's a step in the right

direction.

Christopher Thomas, general educator with the World Bank in Washington, who toured

the Ang Seng school in October, said the breakfast program appears to be contributing

to reducing the number of children repeating grades, an indication the pupils are

staying in school and paying attention. At that school, he said the number of children

repeating a grade this year is 97, down from 143 last year, and attendance is over

900, up from 834.

Officials said it is too early to determine when or if the villages or districts

will eventually be in a position to pick up the costs of the breakfast program on

their own.

But for now, it's a bargain for them. The communities are required to participate

by building the kitchens and providing cooks and vegetables and encouraging health

and nutrition education in the school.

Bob McLaughlin, education consultant for the breakfast program, said that some of

the schools took several months last year to get their kitchens built and pots purchased,

but the clamor by parents to get the food service started prodded them along and

in the end all of the schools selected to participate in the model program complied.

McLaughlin said the program appears to be quite successful, though the monitors have

to keep an eye on parents sneaking under-age children to school. "Both teachers

and students are coming to school on time," he said.

Deuk Saman, head of the school association in the Bati district, said the parents

are very pleased with the breakfast program and "bit by bit" raised the

money to build the kitchen and hire the cooks. He said the parents very much want

their children to get an education, but there's a shortage of classrooms. "We

have to build schools for all," he said.

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