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Students’ Covid learning loss ‘alarming’: research

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Bak Kheng Secondary School student doing an online exam in Prek Leap commune of Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar district last year. Hong Menea

Students’ Covid learning loss ‘alarming’: research

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has revealed alarming new findings about the loss in learning experienced by Cambodian students during the Covid-19 pandemic, a gap which the NGO UNICEF has said requires an increased investment in education to bridge.

The finding was the result of the ministry’s latest National Grade 6 Learning Assessment conducted in November 2021, results of which were announced in March 2022, it said in a joint press statement issued with UNICEF and other educational partners.

The 87-page report, entitled “Learning Loss in the Covid-19 Pandemic Era: Evidence from the 2016-2021 Grade Six National Learning Assessment in Cambodia,” said the Education Quality Assurance Department (EQAD) under the education ministry had assessed more than 6,000 students in 230 schools across Cambodia, and found that children had broadly fallen behind in their learning during the pandemic.

Compared to the latest equivalent Learning Assessment conducted in 2016, the percentage of students who failed to demonstrate basic proficiency increased from 34 to 45 per cent in the Khmer language and from 49 to 74 per cent in Mathematics, the statement said.

Schools across Cambodia were closed for 250 days during 2020 and 2021 owing to the spread of Covid-19, equivalent to almost two thirds of the two school years combined.

The Learning Assessment results showed that boys lost more learning and performed worse in testing. 55 per cent of boys were assessed as not meeting basic proficiency in the Khmer language in 2021, compared to 34 per cent of girls.

“These are worrying results,” said education minister Hang Chuon Naron. “We worked hard with all our partners to put in place remote learning measures for students when schools were closed during the pandemic.

“The studies have shown that these did help to maintain learning for many [students], but the Learning Assessment results confirm that these activities simply weren’t enough to compensate for the learning done by children when they are in a classroom.

“It’s now time for us all to try and help Cambodian children catch up with the learning they’ve lost, a process that has begun, but must now be accelerated with the support of every partner in the education sector.”

Although urban schools achieved better results than rural schools in 2021, they also saw more severe levels of learning loss, especially in Khmer language, reflecting the fact that Mathematics often requires more in-person attention and support than Khmer language, the statement said. Urban schools were particularly impacted by government-imposed lockdowns which prevented physical attendance.

“Globally, learning loss is perceived as being one of the most damaging consequences of the pandemic, but Cambodia is one of the few countries that have proved its extent with hard data. I would like to acknowledge the important step taken by the education ministry to bring forth this important evidence to inform and guide the required policy and action to reverse this trend,” said UNICEF Representative in Cambodia Foroogh Foyouzat.

She continued: “We must also invest more in early grade Mathematics and Khmer Literacy. Young students need a solid foundation in these core subjects for better outcomes in later grades. At UNICEF we pledge an all-out effort with all our partners to help make this happen.”

The education ministry said that, following the finding, it hosted a Joint Technical Working Group Meeting with all of its education partners to devise an action plan.

It said some “crucial steps” have already been taken, such as mandating remedial lessons as soon as schools reopened. But the Working Group agreed that these initiatives needed to be “expanded and strengthened” to help students catch up, such as through increased targeting of the most disadvantaged students, who are likely to have suffered the greatest learning loss.

According to the statement, UNICEF has worked with partners including the education ministry, Kampuchea Action to Promote Education (KAPE), education charity VVOB and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) to produce a set of print and offline resources to support remedial learning.

It said 2,000 teachers have been trained to use these resources, but that more trainers were needed to fill the teaching gap.

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