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A group of school children from grades 1-6 gather for a photo opportunity at Spitler School. Photo Supplied

Filling in gaps where the government has yet to reach

At the very core of education is quality and passion. Where teachers and educators lack the drive to truly execute their duties because of the lack of skills, students suffer the brunt of incompetence: missing out on an education that would otherwise help them secure decent-paying skilled jobs.

This massive shortfall with Cambodian teachers’ qualifications is intrinsically linked to the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities. “Because 90 percent of teachers were killed during the Khmer Rouge, we had to recruit whoever we could, and now they are still in the system,” said education minister HE Dr Hang Chuon Naron.

From there, the Kingdom’s education progressed sluggishly – not a surprise given primary school educators’ initial paltry pay of less than $100, unquestionably giving way to rampant bribes from parents to sustain the teachers’ livelihoods. The monthly salary has since been increased to $250, but bribes remain a norm.

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Chiv Ley, from Spitler School, receiving the Teacher Excellence Award this year. Photo supplied

“The government should invest more but we don’t have enough resources,” Chuon Naron admitted. This is where education-focused, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have stepped up and filled in spaces left bare by the government’s inadequate education budget.

In some cases, outstanding NGOs have been approached by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) to aid with government schools. The Spitler School Foundation (SSF) is one such example. Having established Spitler School in 2005 in Ang Chagn Chass – a small village in Siem Reap province – it was, in 2011, solicited at the request of the village leadership to help manage and improve an existing government institution, Kurata School.

The right to basic education
Danny Spitler, founder of the SSF, attributes the success of the Spitler School to Chea Sarin, the school’s administrator and visionary. Sarin had been Spitler and his wife Pam’s tour guide during their Siem Reap visit in 2005, and after seeing some poor villages in the area, the couple decided to fund the building of some wells for the villagers to access clean water.

As one good thing led to another, Sarin approached the Spitlers asking if they would be keen to help with funds to build a school for the village of Ang Chagn. Having proved his trustworthiness to the Spitlers through prior collaboration, Sarin’s wishes were fulfilled and by July 2005, the Spitler School was officially founded and classes started running.

“The school has grown from serving 75 students to nearly 700 from kindergarten through to grade 6,” Jim Latt, SSF’s volunteer coordinator, said.

According to Spitler, SSF graduates have a much lower dropout rate in middle and high school when compared to the nationwide percentages. “We now have four of our original graduating class of 2010 who are enrolled in university,” he added.

How, then, has the SSF ensured that high standards are met across all management levels?

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Students in the lab at the Neeson-Cripps Academy, CCF’s latest most fully-equipped school. Photo supplied

“Seven years ago, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the MoEYS and SSF, formalising the latter’s function and collaboration with government entities. Students use the ministry textbooks, and the majority of the teachers hold teaching certificates (from the Provincial Teacher Training College),” answered Latt.  

Ministerial cooperation vital
The recognition of Spitler School’s independent excellence comes from it now being considered an official government school. While SSF has hired and paid for its entire teaching staff, the MoEYS recently began supplying and paying for many of the staff at both the Spitler School and Kurata School.

The ministry is also showing more initiative with its current budgeting and acceptance of education aid.

“This shift in responsibility represents the future of Spitler Foundation’s mission, to essentially convey to the community the operations of both schools and not to operate as an outside entity,” Latt continued.

Another pinnacle was reached when one of the Spitler School’s teachers, Chiv Ley, was recognised by the MoEYS as a National Recipient of a Teacher Excellence Award this year – representing one of only five chosen elementary teachers nationwide.

The Spitler School is now equipped with a computer lab to provide training to older students outside school hours, and offers a comprehensive English language program to its students. Nearly 100 percent of students completing grade 6 continue on to grade 7 and beyond, while dropout rates stay significantly lower than the national average in similar rural communities.

Education on the premise of social benefits
For more than a decade, the Stung Meanchey community has been at the receiving end of community schools and satellite schools established by the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF). Predominately a garbage dumpsite, Stung Meanchey’s children have been trained from young to sift through trash and pick anything the least bit valuable.

When the CCF was founded by Scott Neeson in 2004, “The largest obstacle was that the number of children not in school was substantial, nearly 50 percent,” he said. Children were essentially required to earn an income for their families, and they were seen as revenue earners.

“We had to find a way to support families so they wouldn’t be worse off when the child attended school. It wasn’t just about the absentee rates, it was about ensuring the kids could stay in school for however long it took for them to complete their education.”
Trust was undoubtedly difficult to gain, as families saw the CCF as taking away very tangible income that their children were earning, thus it took the foundation a good five years for families to become less hostile. The CCF could only function “on the promise that we would make it up in other ways”.

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The newly opened Neeson-Cripps Academy has a keen focus on STEM education. Photo supplied

Today, said Neeson, “We have rice available for perfect [or close] attendance of children at school, they have access to a [free to user] medical centre and other services that are in black and white.”

Despite the success, issues still remain within the foundation. Tracy France, CCF’s head of education and leadership, explained, “We work very closely with the public school system and we do have issues with class sizes. Year 12 have places where there are 60 to 70 children to a class. Given how difficult Year 12 is and, of course, you have to pass exams legitimately, it’s very difficult for the average student to properly complete high school when they can’t hear the teacher and can’t see the blackboard.

That’s something I’d like to see addressed.”

Given the countrywide lack of qualified teachers, CCF has put in place its own set of professional standards. Teachers are held accountable to live up to CCF’s set of professional standards, which include an induction process, teacher training, seminars, online courses and a teacher observation process with awards and coaching. Scholarships are also provided to support the teachers in improving their English proficiency.

As how it should be at the most rudimentary level, “we believe that performance of teachers makes all the difference in the quality of teaching and learning,” France emphasised.

From trash picker to finance major
“On my first day here, I came across a girl in a terrible state who had never been to school. This year, she will be graduating from university majoring in finance,” said Neeson. “That just really shows you the resilience of children and how much can be accomplished by offering an opportunity.”

This particular success story is just one of many; of the 200 children that the CCF first worked with in the dumpsite area 13 years ago, 130 are now in university.

More help needed, ministry
Spitler pointed out that while the MoEYS has worked tirelessly in ensuring that Cambodia’s education progresses consistently, it has also become more obvious that there is a great need for vocational education.

“Students need to be prepared with job-specific skills which support national labour and economic objectives,” he added.

The improvement of any society, says Spitler, is dependent on an educated workforce, and he believes skill and job-specific training will be an essential area of focus for future high school programs in Cambodia.

“While we are encouraged by the progress we have seen over the past few years we would hope that the government will place more and more emphasis on their education system, in both basic and vocational realms.”

For Neeson, touching briefly on separating unscrupulous NGOs from those who are relentlessly pursuing basic education rights for Cambodia’s children, he believes that the best way to tackle the problem is to increase the resources at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MoSVY).

“The ministry is very tough with what it expects which is something that we support. If we’re going to be looking after the future of children then we should be made to live up to a very high standard in terms of our care, education, safety and ensuring that children are not monetised.”

He thinks the MoSVY could do with increasing the number of rehab workers auditing these facilities, and ensuring that every NGO is registered and compliant – which is only what should be done at the most basic level.

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