Tucked away behind a high wall on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard is a collection of brash red, white and blue buildings, home to one of the most recent additions to Phnom Penh’s English-language schools, the American Education Center.
The Director of the AEC, the aptly named Janet English, says what the school offers its students is different from most schools.
“The AEC was set up to do something different from the traditional language teaching. We’re computer based, using technology, and then the students go into the classroom and do activities based on what they’re learning on the computer, using the same language structures. So we have no textbooks, although some students wish they had them,” she says.
Originally from Edmonton, in the west of Canada, English says the opportunity to work in Cambodia was too good to miss. “I spent nine years in China, all over, the last four years in Beijing. But I felt I’d been in China for a long time, and Cambodia presented a lot of opportunities. This school was opening and looking for someone experienced to run it, and I had the background as a director of studies. And I’m very much enjoying being here.”
The focus of the school’s teaching is less on academic achievement, and more on communication. “We have different programs, hospitality English programs, and we do a writing program. Our basic set-up is that we try to teach listening and speaking first, the same way we all learn our first language.” However English stresses that the teaching is as rigorous as possible, and of an international standard: “If somebody goes through and gets through to the advanced level, they should have no problem passing their IELTS (International English Language Testing System), their test of English language proficiency.”
All of AEC’s teachers are foreign, except for at a very basic level, where they use Khmer, and the school goes to a great deal of trouble to pick the right staff. “We like to find teachers that are fairly stable and set up here. We’re very selective about who we hire, so that can present difficulties, but we do have very good teachers.”
While the school’s innovative use of technology is different from other establishments, it is proving popular in Cambodia. “We’ve been open about nine months. We now have about 300 students. It’s growing. It takes time. We take students from 10 years old all the way up: we’ve even got some students who are in their fifties.”
Is she optimistic about the educational future in Cambodia? “Oh yes,” she replies. “People are hungry to learn. We have students here who’ve just enrolled for their fourth term, they’re realising that they can speak easily now, and their listening is much better when they’re talking to foreigners, and they’re very enthused by that.”
English would eventually love to roll out the AEC concept across the kingdom. “I’d love to see us do that, not least because I’d love to travel to places like Siem Reap and Battambang, and live there for a while, but I think it’ll probably take us a while to get a really firm base here. But we can do sessions using Skype, for students from around the country, which works out really well, and we’ve got some really enthusiastic students.”