Learning through play – 70% of Cambodia’s poorest children have no toys.

Mind the gap. Two thirds of the infant children of Cambodia's wealthiest 20% will attend pre-school.

Mind the gap. Two thirds of the infant children of Cambodia’s wealthiest 20% will attend pre-school.

One of the first impressions I had of infant children in Cambodia was formed in 2004 when I first visited Siem Reap. Each day as I travelled to and from the Angkor temples – I had a wonderful guide named Joe Topp – we would pass small villages and farmhouses, and standing outside these places were young children, listless, just watching the world go by.

Their blank faces haunted me: these children seemed somehow disengaged from the world around them: I realised I saw very few children actually playing. They weren’t pushing toy trucks through the mud, or sploshing merrily by the pump – they were just standing there.

In a couple of posts recently I have talked about pre-school education, and I was rightly critiqued by one reader who reminded me that early childhood education isn’t simply a matter of formal classroom interventions, but is a whole process of socialisation and engagement – very often through play.

So I wondered if there were any figures around this usually elusive topic. UNICEF is where I started, and sure enough I got from their website the figures which populate the chart above. Here, they compare the likelihood that young children from the poorest 20%, and from the richest 20% of Cambodian families – will attend formal early childhood education.

Yes, but what about toys or books? After all, one could have a perfectly fantastic upbringing in a home where children are encouraged to take part – for example in the way my mother used to encourage us kids to get involved whenever she was making biscuits. We were given the task of cutting the dough into shapes.

Well, here’s one indicator; again from the UNICEF website. Below, we compare the presence of books and learning materials appropriate for young children in the homes of the poorest 20%, versus the homes of the richest 20% of Cambodian families.

ECE 20 CHART2

Here the gap (12.5%) isn’t so wide, partly on account of the fact that so few of any Cambodian homes have learning materials suitable for the youngest members of the household. Only one relatively wealthy home in every eight has such materials available for their young kids.

The UNICEF surveys also asked about playthings, and here the figures are somewhat better.

  • Some 30% of the poorest 20% of households have playthings at home for the children.
  • Of the richest 20% of households, those with kids that is, some 57% have playthings available for their children.

Perhaps the gap doesn’t sound so bad – but what this still means is that 7 out of every 10 children in poor regions don’t have toys.

I would caution readers who take this as an open invitation to flood Cambodia with just any old toys. Toys should be sturdy, versatile, educational and encourage imagination. In Phnom Penh, the day after I visited S 21 I happened to walk past a toy store which seemed, unfortunately, to specialise in plastic replica guns. These looked like the real thing, and it struck me what a wicked thing to encourage kids to play with – especially  for the generation born within years of the National Holocaust.

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A teenage tragedy – a sad loss of life

This week the children at our school were rocked by the sudden death of one of their fellow students, a teenager who took his own life one evening. Nobody saw it coming. Today as I write this, there is a full-scale funeral for the boy and those attending include fellow students, teachers and other staff who have been involved in the care and teaching of this young man.

The event may have been triggered by another suicide, also involving a teenager from the same village one month earlier: I can’t be certain of this.

The sad news prompted me to research the incidence of suicide in Cambodia, and to examine some of the attitudes surrounding this.

Ten years ago when I first came to Cambodia I asked about attitudes to suicide, thinking that perhaps Buddhist attitudes might be more accepting of this, compared to Western religions. Not so: it appears all major religions in the world are agreed that taking one’s own life is a tragedy best avoided.

But avoiding suicide amongst teenagers is a difficult thing. My own country, New Zealand, holds one of the worst teenage suicide rates in the world, and in 20 years I’ve not seen any convincing program to deal with this problem. More likely, the story is more granular and complex – with many many good interventions effectively saving lives but going unreported while meanwhile a bigger avalanche is still occurring.

In Cambodia psychologists have in recent years turned their attention away from the stress disorders resulting from the Pol Pot years, and started to focus on the issues faced by the burgeoning young generation aged under 30.

Here the figures get murky. According to government reports, for example in 2013, there were some 600 suicides in Cambodia, up by 13% over 2012.

But these figures are hotly disputed by university psychologists who have studied the issue in depth. They say 600 is a mere fraction of the real numbers. One issue is the lack of autopsy and official record-keeping associated with deaths in highly rural Cambodia.

And as a researcher I know how hard it is to otherwise calculate these things. You can’t just conduct a survey and ask people on a scale of 10, how close they have come to taking their own lives. Ms Sek Sisokhom, head of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s psychology department suggests that the government figures woefully under-report the true state of affairs. Using rigorous research, and representative sampling, her research calculates that among adults the rate is more likely in excess of 40 individuals per hundred thousand (42.35 reported suicides per 100,000 of the population in 2011.)  This puts Cambodia right near the top of the ladder in terms of global figures, unfortunately. See Phnom Penh Post.

The under-reporting, which is clearly happening, reveals something of the attitudes towards suicide – and a lack of concerted effort to do something to prevent young people taking their own lives. If society was committed to solving the problem, then it would begin by measuring it and looking for patterns.

As it stands, the existing research reveals the following:

  • Young people under the age of 25 are the most susceptible to thoughts of suicide.
  • There is a clear gender split – young men much more likely to contemplate suicide compared to young women.
  • There are societal causes implicated including unemployment and poverty.

Psychology studies in Cambodia (see also) conclude that young people are poorly equipped when it comes to discussing the problems, or knowing where to go should they need help. Like young people in many places, the young adults of Cambodia tend to bottle-up their feelings, often hiding their true state of mind.

As social workers worldwide recognise, suicides can occur in contagions – with one event at a high school triggering others. Whereas western schools are, more and more, putting grief counselling processes in place – or having access to these – the same is not true in Cambodia. Yesterday I spoke about this with a friend of mine, Royce, who actually comes from the same village as the boy took his own life. He recommended that we get in contact with an organisation, an NGO, that specialises in social counselling: TPO is the organisation, and while their main focus was historically on postwar stress disorders, their services now include grief counselling.

This week is very sad, but we should use the opportunity to increase our understanding of the issues, and raise the level of grief counselling intervention to help prevent another contagion.

MY FUNDRAISING CRISIS

Money isn't everything, but it sure helps. Savong's School - like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Money isn’t everything, but it sure helps. The school – like every school world-wide, needs funds.

Last week I reignited this blog after five months silence. A few of you will know that this year I had a health surprise, namely a diagnosis of Parkinsons disease.  So far the disease has not produced radical symptoms –  extreme shakes,  or, an affliction that strikes many sufferers, ( at least eventually,)  immobility. It is not uncommon for those with Parkinsons to freeze  when they get to a door,  and require some visual prompt to get them started again. I’d say I’m  bound to be on an interesting adventure to say the least.  But for now my symptoms include:

  • Loss of the use of my right hand when it comes to typing. My right arm is about as useful as a plank of wood.
  • The need for much more sleep!
  • A slowdown in my work rate –  my brain is sharp,  but it takes longer to get my thoughts down on paper.

During my  five months silence  I enjoyed a long overdue holiday with my partner, Susanna, and I spent quiet time ruminating about the impact of my condition.  It has scrapped the old rules, but the problem is there are no new hard guidelines.  Everybody with Parkinsons  experiences a different combination of symptoms,  and the onslaught of these occurs at different speeds. Who knows? So against this shifty backdrop I have been trying to contemplate what the impact will be on my life.  I’m starting to set goals  and objectives: of bucket list of things I want to achieve before – and just in case – I deteriorate beyond usefulness.

Some of these goals are very tangible.  I wish to complete a long cycle ride within the next 24 months,  and there are some writing projects that I have started already: things I have long wanted to write.

But there is one central crisis I have not been able to resolve,  and that is the funding  of Savong’s school in Cambodia. Savong’s project  has many branches –  two homes for children,  a student centre for older students in Siem Reap, as well is the school  in Bakong which serves primary school children as well is secondary.  It also provides scholarships to University  for the top grade 12 students each year.  These scholarships are worth about $1000 per student per annum  over the four years required to get a degree.

All up,  the school  requires at least $3000 per month to run, and a majority of this money has come out of my own earnings.  Over the past 10 years it has been more efficient for me to knuckle down to work, to earn my income as a researcher,  and to send the money over to Cambodia. Far easier than fund raising.

This last year I was going to make the transition  toward fundraising however.  I am almost 60, retirement is around the corner,  and I need to find an alternative  source of income to underwrite the ongoing expenses  of Savong’s school. I saw this as a kind of baton change in a relay race.  What the Parkinsons diagnosis did was cause me to stumble badly and drop the baton.

So now by my reckoning  I have got eight months  to get my fundraising act together.  Somehow,  somewhere,  through some people,  I need to find sponsors  to the tune of US$3000 per month. The school in Cambodia,  which serves many hundreds of children,  faces many challenges of its own:  my health shouldn’t be one of them.

See also: About the school.

And how to donate the school.

Cambodian school system is still failing its students

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Exam results! Who passed? Who missed out? In 2014 just under 40% of Grade 12 students passed their exams. How do we lift that?

Just prior to this month’s water Festival festivities which have made a welcome full-scale return to the Cambodian holiday scene, the Ministry of education, youth and sport released figures showing an extremely poor success rate for those high school students re-sitting their exams.

The Ministry has been making good progress over recent years to ensure that a greater percentage of Cambodian young people have full access to schools, and they have been working hard to lower the student to teacher ratio which is one of the highest in the world. The MOEYS website has impressed me for laying out the facts and figures of the successes, or challenges facing the education sector in Cambodia.

For one of the key performance indicators, the pass rate of students re-sitting their grade 12 exams –  those students who didn’t quite make the grade at the first attempt – is troubling. a lot of attention was being paid to this KPI because the pass rate for the grade 12 exams was down steeply compared to 2013 results. From the Phnom Penh Post:

Just 25.72 per cent of students passed the exam, the Ministry of Education officially announced yesterday, a result lower even than the dismal 30 per cent figure predicted by Prime Minister Hun Sen in the aftermath of the two-day test earlier this month.

The exam – usually rife with corruption and cheating – had been hailed as the cleanest in many years, thanks to a determined crackdown by the ministry, which deployed thousands of monitors from the anti-corruption unit to enforce strict regulations.

By way of comparison, 87 per cent of students passed in 2013.

The crackdown on cheating is a good thing, and so was the opportunity the government gave 90,000 Cambodian students to resit their exams if they missed first time.

Some 30,000 of these did not bother re-sitting however, but presumably the other 60,000 felt they had some chance. Here’s the report from the Phnom Penh Post.

Just 18 per cent of more than 60,000 hopeful students who re-sat the grade 12 national exams earlier this month have passed, according to official results released yesterday.

No students scored A or B grades, while one student scored a C grade. A total of 55 students received a D grade while the vast majority – 10,815 students – passed with the lowest E grade.

The 17.94 per cent pass rate was lower than the first tests in August, when a government blitz on cheating and corruption brought a dramatic drop from an 87 percent pass rate in 2013. Some 25 per cent passed the first round this year.

Prime Minister Hun Sen personally intervened to announce a re-sit for those who had failed the all-important exams, which are essential to pass for most university degree courses.

Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron, who is spearheading reforms, said yesterday that despite the lowly scores, the re-test was “worthwhile”.

“Even though we made a big effort to help students, just a few more students passed,” he said yesterday.

“[But] in terms of extra spending and the extra effort, it was still worthwhile because we helped more than 10,000 pass.”

Naron also said the dismal results for the second exam were “logical”, as the country’s top students had already passed during the first round.

“If [the percentage of students who passed] was higher than last time, we’d be very suspicious,” he said.

At Preah Sisowath High School in central Phnom Penh hundreds of students morosely listened to the announcement of results broadcast by loudspeaker yesterday afternoon.

“It’s not an easy year for me,” said an 18-year-old female student that declined to be named after learning she had failed.

“I knew that this would happen because I’m not a good student. Even though I tried to study hard this past month, I still couldn’t do any better than before.”

The crying teenager said she would have to repeat grade 12 again.

But for the few who succeeded, celebrations were ecstatic.

Lok Chanvisal, 18, who passed with an E grade, cheered and jumped around with his friends before quickly calling his father to pass on the good news.

“I was trying so hard in the last month and I never went out with my friends like I used to do,” he said, adding that he was ready to re-ignite his social life, starting last night. “It’s time for Halloween [partying], which coincides with our success.”

Education watchdogs, however, were critical that the government shelled out $2.5 million to organise the re-test, given that hardly any students passed.

“Allowing all the students who failed [to re-sit] was a waste of government budget. There should have been criteria so students who scored too low the first time [just] failed and did not get a retry,” San Chey, country coordinator for social accountability group ANSA-EAP, said.

“The scores indicate we should have great concern for the quality of education in Cambodia.”

CNRP whip Son Chhay, who also serves as deputy head of the parliamentary commission on finance and banking, said the government’s move was “very positive”.

Chhay added that he believed $250 could be reached well before 2018 if reforms were expedited. Getting civil servants back on side was “a question of survival” for the CPP, he said.

But unions representing public workers yesterday had no praise for the government.

“Why do they have to wait until 2018?” said Rong Chhun of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association.

Cambodian Independent Civil Servant Association head Kao Poeun said: “Despite the recent raises, their salaries are still low, so they won’t provide citizens with good public services. They will still try to make money through corruption.”

The results of students have clearly become a political battleground, for example between the teachers lobby and the Ministry – a battle over salaries and standards of teacher training.

By my calculations the eventual pass rate works out to be almost 40% – (26% on the first attempt, plus another 13% of the total on the second go.)  In other words 60% of those who enter grade 12 are for some reason not making the distance.

I can think of at least three root causes for this, and they include:

  1. Poor standards of teacher training. It is one thing to supply enough teachers, but as my figures show elsewhere on this blog, around half the teachers in Cambodia have themselves progressed no further than grade 12.
  2.  lack of teaching of study skills, and lack of textbooks or resources for students. It is one thing to attend classes in Cambodia, but many students don’t have the skills or resources to support what they learn in the classroom.
  3. Poverty. The current pass figures, low as they are, would be even lower if poor students – those from poor families – were even to make it through to grade 12. Many of those who do still need to work full time on the family farm or business simply to make ends meet with their family. Grade 12 students in many cases are forced by circumstances to treat school as their side activity; not their main one.

For more up to date figures from the Cambodian education sector – teacher student ratios and a teacher shortage in Siem Reap. Plus: How Qualified are the Teachers of Cambodia?

I weep for Savong’s older brother – Savet.

I weep for Savong's older brother - Savet.

In 2009 when I took this photo I was captivated more by the picturesque quality of what I saw than by the true human story. The man in the picture – his blue shirt contrasting gloriously with the fluffy delicious white rice he is cooking for the children at SOC – is no longer alive, and his story nags me as a reminder of Cambodia’s recent history.

His name is Savet, and he was Savong’s older brother; a figure to whom Savong remains deeply attached.

In the years immediately after Pol Pot, Cambodia went through a terrible period of impoverishment, and families scratched out what living they could.

This is how bad it was: Savet left home at age seven to fend for himself. He survived on a diet that included tree bark, insects and whatever he could afford to buy from begging. Imagine making that decision as a 7-year-old.

In many respects it is understandable that Savet became emotionally rather detached from his family. As a teenager he came and went from the household, but he spent many years of his adult life living in Poipet. In is last years he came home to Siem Reap where he helped Savong at the SOC. He was the stoic father figure that many of the children looked up to.

This was not to last. In time Savet contracted cancer and after a brief and painful battle his life ended in the same home in which he had begun his life.

Savong speaks admiringly of his brother who as a youngster took Savong under his wing and taught him the skills of begging. Together when the UN troops arrived in Cambodia, the two boys would sell banana cake and it was from Savet that Savong learned his first word in English which was something like: “Misterdollar.”

When Savet was on his deathbed, hooked up to a drip, he chastised Savong for not being by his bedside often enough. “In Cambodia,” Savong explained to me, “when you are on your deathbed then you have the right to insist that others gather around.”

Savong felt the sting of the rebuke, but what could he do? He was so busy running the school and the children’s home out in Bakong and he was unable to be in two places at once.

Savet’s death marked a change in Savong. I noticed almost immediately that my friend was much more serious in life, and that the grand adventure he was on – a young man who has started a school! – had now become a mission.

Perhaps Savong does everything in the name of his brother these days. I wouldn’t blame him. Savet was a victim of everything that went wrong in Cambodia in the 1970s and 80s, and ultimately he gave the last days of his life, as we see in the photo, preparing food and serving the needs of a younger hopefully luckier generation.

A recent story of a girl with an awful decision.

Primary School resources needed for rural Siem Reap

Primary School resources needed for rural Siem Reap

Savong’s School plans to open new primary school classes.

Ministry of Education figures show a national shortage of primary school teachers, and this is felt particularly in rural areas where the teacher/student ratio is often close to 1 teacher for 47+ students. Savong’s School intends to offer 6 classes (Grade 1 – 6) each with 30 students per teacher. Schooling will be provided free of charge: something that will be appreciated in the  Bakong community where many families live below the official Cambodian poverty line.

Here’s how you can help.