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Ethnic kids face language barriers

Ethnic kids face language barriers

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Primary school children belonging to the Kouy ethnic minority gather outside a school in T'beng Meanchey district, Preah Vihear province. According to a local educational official most Kouy do not attend formal school because they do not speak Khmer.

U nable to speak Khmer, stricken with poverty or forced to labor for family welfare, many children of Cambodia's ethnic minority groups do not receive even basic education, a range of education officials has told the Post.

"We encourage the parents to send their children to normal school, but it is difficult for them as they don't speak Khmer," said Tauch Choeun, deputy director of the Non-Formal Education Department at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS). "They drop out mostly in grade 1 as the beginning is the most difficult."

More than 20 separate ethnic minority groups live in Cambodia and most speak only their traditional tongue. Language difficulties, along with poverty and traditional family roles, have hampered the MoEYS goal of ensuring ethnic minorities have access to free and compulsory primary education in the Education For All (EFA) National Plan of 2003.

MoEYS officials said they had no statistics on enrollment or drop-out rates for minority students, but said that since 2003 the ministry has spent $76,415 on minority education in 10 community schools.

A senior MoEYS official said that the educational demands of ethnic minority groups have "a long way to go to be fulfilled."

"The children can't go to school because it is far away from their homes," said Nhean Saroeun, chief of special education office in the Primary Education Department of the MoEYS. "[There is] no school at all in many communities."

Saroeun said that not many government officials realized the problems of minority education.

"They never go into the minority areas," he said. "They are not aware of it."

The MoEYS plans to set up at least one school in every community by 2015 in order to achieve the goals of the EFA plan. In order to do so, the MoEYS has entered into cooperation with several NGOs to launch a bridging education project for the indigenous ethnic minorities group. According to officials, the project has encountered many difficulties.

"Every class [of minority students] must have one minority teacher," Saroeun said.

In Mondulkiri province, there are 221 minority students in three schools. Every school has around 73 children in one class, according to statistics from the MoEYS. He said it was difficult to manage a class with 70 students, but that there were not enough teachers or classrooms.

"Some families are very poor, they live in the forest," said Saroeun. He said few teachers from urban areas were willing to teach or live in remote areas.

"They don't like to live with the minorities because the standard of living is different," he said. "They have difficulties with their food and water."

He also said teachers dislike being unable to look for other jobs when working in rural districts.

The Provincial Education Department prefers to select teachers from local villages to ensure their responsibility and commitment to the community, Saroeun said.

Choosing the teachers, however, is difficult.

"Most of them are poorly educated," he said. "Not many people have much education; some finished grade 2, while some finished grade 6."

Starting from this year, the MoEYS has begun to cooperate with CARE international, an NGO that looks to the needs of children, to launch a five-year primary education pilot project targeting minority children in Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri, Stung Treng, Kratie and Preah Vihear provinces.

"They can't speak Khmer, so we've started to use this program to teach," Saroeun said.

The program aims to provide primary education in bilingual literacy, mathematics, social studies and science. The curriculum is rooted in villagers' daily activities, to make it relevant to a minority group. Their knowledge and experience are used to set curriculum content.

To ensure the integration of the children with the government school system, a transition would be made to Khmer as the primary language of instruction. The textbook is written in both Khmer and the mother tongue. For indigenous languages with no written form, Khmer script has been applied.

In grade 1, 20 percent of the instruction is in Khmer. The proportion will be increased to 50 percent in grade 2 and 70 percent in grade 3. The MoEYS believes the three-year bridging course is enough for the children to express and understand the national language.

Save the Children Norway (SCN) has been working with the MoEYS bridging education project since 2004. The ethnic minority SCN has focused on is the Kouy people of Preah Vihear province.

"When they come to school, they cannot understand what the teacher is saying" said Kou Boun Kheng, senior program officer of Basic Education at SCN. "We are also worried that the culture of the ethnic group has been lost. The textbook helps the children to learn and live their culture."

After one year, the grade-to-grade promotion rate has significantly increased from 30 percent to 61 percent, according to SCN figures.

"We don't have enough teachers," he said. "We hope the Teacher Training Department could consider more Kouy teachers as the candidates. We have no teachers to teach."

To encourage attendance, school schedules are designed to be flexible and suited for seasonal farming cycles. Classes start in the afternoon because children work in the field in the morning. There is a vacation during the planting season. Still, it is not a guarantee that students will make roll call.

"They are poor; they live far away from the school and they always move their farms," Saroeun said. "It is difficult to keep the students [in school] if their parents don't allow it."

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