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A plan for out-of-school kids

A child walks along the riverbank searching for recyclable garbage
A child walks along the riverbank searching for recyclable garbage in Chroy Changvar last year. Hong Menea

A plan for out-of-school kids

More than 57,000 of Cambodia’s primary school-aged children are not enrolled in any form of education, according to a new consortium aiming at bringing those children into the classroom.

Deprived of their right to a free state education, these out-of-school children either leave before completing six years of primary school or have never started their classes.

To get these students into the classroom and to ideally retain their enrolment for the full 12-year state schooling, Cambodia yesterday launched a $20 million initiative to reach its most marginalised young pupils.

The Cambodian Consortium for Out of School Children, a coalition of 17 NGOs and the Ministry of Education, are intent on identifying and re-enrolling populations often skipped over: poor and remote children, street children, children with disabilities, over-age students and ethnic minorities.

“Our policy is very ambitious,” Hang Chuon Naron, Minister of Education, Youth and Sport said during yesterday’s launch. “We must do whatever we can to get all our boys and girls into school.”

Though the Kingdom’s net enrolment rate for grade one reached 98 per cent last year, according to government figures, educators argue that the missing 2 per cent are not just a negligible statistic, but instead belie larger, systemic issues within the education sector.

By the time a class progresses to sixth grade, nearly a third of the students will have dropped out, and the completion numbers trail even farther in the higher grades.

Yet the factors inching children out of the classroom or preventing them from ever starting are rooted in the earliest grades, according to educators.

“Children don’t wake up one morning and want to drop out of school,” said Sheldon Shaeffer, education specialist and consortium advisor. “They are more often pushed out of school than dropping out.”

Part of the problem, as Shaeffer identified it, is an overemphasis on the higher grades rather than paying attention to early years that “lay the foundation for good learning”.

Over 38 per cent of the nation’s primary school teachers have not completed their own 12-year basic education, compared to 16 per cent of the secondary school teachers. In addition to more experience, the higher level teachers also tend to rake in a better salary.

“If we want to set conditions for children to stay in school, it has to start in grade one or even earlier,” said Shaeffer. “Children who aren’t ready for school don’t stay in school.”

To remedy the situation, the new consortium is set on making primary school more adaptable to those students that need the most attention.

Each of the five components of the project, which extends to all 25 provinces, has set goals for improved enrolment, specialised teacher training, new infrastructure, and parent support to be achieved by November 2017.

The disabilities component will make sure every school has equitable access to toilets and classrooms, while the ethnic minorities program will improve mother language-based learning options.

The over-age component, which wants an accelerated three-year primary school program to be available at every school, targets one of the largest groups of at-risk students.

“A third of students are over-age by the time they start their first year of school,” Naron said.

Those over-age students are then likely to feel pressured to work if they come from poor families, and the employment makes them less likely to stay in school, a UN study published last week found.

“Once a child drops out of school, it’s not just the family that’s hurt by it, it’s the whole society,” said Naron.

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