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Transforming the education system

Cambodia’s schools need help – but sending teachers isn’t the only answer. VSO is working to effect real, sustainable change at every level
In the UK, everyone has to stay at school until they are at least 16, and in many developed countries education continues for years after that. But in Cambodia nearly 15% of children drop out of school before they are 11. They never even finish primary school.
Children listen attentively in a Cambodian classroom but many drop out because they live in abject poverty or must work on the land.
As there are complex reasons for this, VSO is taking a look at the root causes of the failure of Cambodia’s education system. The organisation wants to help transform the system, rather than simply sending teachers to fill the gaps.
The most fundamental step is to effect policy change. Angus MacNeil MP went to Cambodia in 2008 with the Parliamentary Volunteering Scheme. His task was to raise the profile of VSO’s Valuing Teachers report. This report considers the role of teachers in society: recruitment and training, pay, status, education management, lack of resources, and the challenges posed by the behaviour of some students.
“Teachers’ wages are far too low and it’s taking focus from the classroom,” MacNeil says. He was able to discuss the matter with the education minister. Wages are going up, albeit slowly, and this should lessen the need for some teachers to take second jobs in order to make ends meet. “The minister was sympathetic,” he continues. “Cambodia is a poor country but they are making a lot of progress.”
According to Chea Vantha, senior programme manager for education at VSO Cambodia, there is a range of problems that need addressing. “First, there needs to be access to education, then the quality of that education needs to be improved.” Professional development for education staff at all levels – teachers, headteachers, managers, civil servants – also needs to be addressed.
Teacher training has been inadequate, says Vantha. “Teachers don’t really understand student-centred teaching, so their lessons aren’t interesting. They aren’t paying attention to slow learners or disadvantaged children. There’s a lack of understanding how to support children.”
VSO volunteer Dr Charlene Bredder is originally from the US and has extensive experience as a teacher and education lecturer. Based at Kampot, a provincial town near Cambodia’s south coast, she is education adviser at the Provisional Teacher Training Centre, supporting the quality and effectiveness of classroom teaching, school planning, and education policy.
“I am looking at the curriculum and introducing the idea of interactivity,” she says. “For instance, I made Khmer alphabet cards that the teacher would hold while the children do connected activities. With F for Frog, the children would hop like frogs!”
There are many financial constraints on educational development, with a big divide between urban and rural areas where 80% of the population lives. In rural areas there may be next to no resources: teachers might have classes of 60-70 children and be 20km away from a photocopier, with a complete lack of scissors, glue, pens, pencils – all the things that make school interesting for children. Bredder is formulating a resource pack for new teachers that will include these things.
This work is designed to carry on after she has left: “I love being here because my colleagues are very willing and enthusiastic about new ideas. They know what will work here, and I have new ideas. That’s a very special combination.”
VSO is also encouraging national volunteers to work within schools in their own communities. “This is not just about involving parents,” says Vantha. “It’s also, for instance, establishing student councils. That way, even if projects end, the work will continue.”

Committed to achieving education for all

The UN’s second millennium development goal set in 2000 is to “achieve universal primary education” by 2015. This means all children should complete their primary education. Most children in Cambodia enrol in primary education, but in 2008-2009 only 85.5% successfully finished it.
Cambodia is now enjoying peace after more than 30 years of conflict and instability, but the genocide of the 1970s still has an enduring impact throughout the country. In the years up to 1979, an estimated 75% of teachers were killed by the Khmer Rouge and there are still far too few qualified professionals. Parents may not back their children’s education if they have not received schooling themselves.
VSO has worked in Cambodia since 1991, when programmes were initiated at the request of the government. VSO’s education work differs from that of other NGOs as volunteers provide professional expertise to support the government, teacher-training bodies and individual teachers. The aim is to spread this expertise so that eventually international volunteers will no longer be needed. VSO remains committed to Cambodia, even though other aid agencies no longer work there. It works with the government to achieve its Education for All programme. This includes the Valuing Teachers research, which among other things has improved teachers’ pay.
“The VSO approach is a great example of the effectiveness of people working at different levels. This holistic approach amplifies the impact made by each volunteer, ensuring our donors’ money goes further in the fight against poverty,” says Jackie Bee, VSO UK’s head of marketing & engagement.
The Guardian
Categories: Education, Local News
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