Shades of Grey. A Before and After in Lolei Village

Lolei Village is very near Savong’s School in terms of distance from Siem Reap, but is located further North; over the road as it were, with Number 6 Highway cutting its dangerous swathe between Lolei and the Rolous temples of Bakong.

In the heart of the village is the home of teacher Sovannarith who now runs a school of his own, dedicated to teaching English and computer skills to the children of his village. He used to teach at Savong’s School, right back in the days when salaries were a competitive $US45 a month and computer education was not even feasible.

Sovannarith and me

The “before” shot. Some 12 years ago – 2007 – we took this photo in a freshly painted classroom at Savong’s School. Sovannarith hasn’t changed, but since then my hair has adopted a Paul Newman silver.

After teaching at Savong’s School for several years, while he studied hard to complete his arts degree from the internationally recognised Pannasastra University of Cambodia, Sovannarith harbored dreams of running his own school. He wanted something for his own community.  I was keen to see what he had achieved since 2011.

Actually since 2005 I had already been familiar with the local school situation in Lolei thanks to the great work of Schools for Children of Cambodia (SCC), a registered and well-run charity from the UK that focuses on the rural children of Siem Reap province. Like us, I’m sure they must constantly explain that despite the boom town quality of Siem Reap, the rural areas are still desperately poor.  One of the original schools they supported, back in 2005, was in Lolei Village.

Alas and through no fault of SCC the arrangement didn’t work out, and rather than run the school in their prescribed way the then headmaster had a seriously divergent view of how the school ought to run. SCC walked, and soon put their hard earned funds to better use elsewhere. They continue to excellent work.

But from that story, told to me by members of the SCC, I was always aware that Sovannarith’s village had an educational gap whereby the local State School still provided inadequate teaching of English (and computer skills) to children who need both if they wish to proceed into salaried employment or further tertiary education.

Enter Sovannarith who set up Angkor Legacy Academy in April 2011. It is a vibrant place, with high quality volunteers (the one’s I met were a quantum leap from the gangling gap-year ‘Facebook Volunteers’ who often visit these organisations.) and a well equipped computer lab with late-model laptops.  The vibe was happy, busy and thriving.

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The “After” shot. 2019. I turned up unannounced at Sovannarith’s school in Lolei and Rith strode up to the tuk tuk as I alighted – “Greetings stranger!” he announced. “Long time no see!” Comparing the photos, I wonder if he was referring to our mutual need for glasses.

Sovannarith made me feel very welcome, and during our brief chat (I was on the way to Savong’s School,) we reflected on times past. Sovannarith hasn’t changed one bit.  He is still passionate about educating the children of rural Cambodia. But he was kind enough also to say that his time at Savong’s School was what got him started – we gave him a teaching job and in those years he learned a lot about running a classroom and running a school. “Without that experience I wouldn’t be here today running the Angkor Legacy Academy,” he told me.

That made me feel very gratified. In 2004 when we commenced plans to build a school in Bakong, Savong and I never dreamed that his school would help multiply the number of teachers and schools. I can count 9 schools that began in a similar fashion to Sovannarith’s project and owe their start to Savong’s initial vision. If anything, that is the major achievement of the project. I think SCC and other organisations can also claim similar influence.  As I’ve found in business, losing good staff can be sad – but seeing them succeed is a wonderful thing.

Links:

Schools For Cambodian Children

Angkor Legacy Academy

For more on this theme:

Back to school. 2019.

The Great Divide: Life of a Teacher

 

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Cambodia’s upswing in education spending to 2018

Savong Teaching

My friend Savong loves teaching. Here he is in full flight. His school, like those of other NGOs has helped pick up the slack created by government under-spending.

Investing enough in Cambodia’s future? I don’t think so. Until recently Cambodia’s state investment in education has languished. As a percentage of government expenditure, Cambodia spent until recently less than 12% of their total budget. This was ranked 140th in the world – but even then, the figure disguised the fact that the government income and expenditure in Cambodia was not all that high in any case. Education was getting a small slice of a small pie. Since early in the new millennium the numbers have improved slowly.

  • 2010   13.1%
  • 2007   12.4%
  • 2004   10.1%*
    *  Figures from World Data Atlas

Raw percentages are a blunt measure of course. In Singapore the percentage is around 20%, while in Japan, with its relatively ageing population and its excellent existing education infrastructure, the percentage is close to 10%.  Neither nation faces the steep challenges as faced by Cambodia in the past decade, however Cambodia, for a few years, has spent more on its military than it has on schools and teachers.

But that is changing. The education strategic plan, or ESP ratified in 2014 by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) set out an aggressive boost in education spending, taking the figure north of 20% this year, up to 23.1% in 2017 and towards 26% in 2018.

EDUCATION BUDGET MOEYS

Government plans and budgets are notoriously subject to changes and reality checks. The world economy is flat-lining in 2016, yet the MoEYS strategic development plan has inserted an optimistic growth in GDP of 7.4% for this year, and on this basis projected to increase spending from half a billion US dollars this year – 2016 – to three-quarters of a billion in 2018.

These figures need scrutinising. Where will the dollars go?  Do they keep pace with numbers of enrolments and the laudable plans to introduce upgraded science labs and computer labs – or boosts to teacher training?

Yet the intentions are great, and certainly have flagged the nation’s recognition that it has a burgeoning young population who need investing in.

For more education facts and figures – click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Samach’s story.

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samach

His ID Photo is the classic Cambodian ID.  A serious young man in a small passport-sized photo that looks badly developed and almost hand-retouched. He wears a formal jacket and tie (this is an official ID) despite the heat on the day the photo was taken. The young man’s name is Chuon Samach. Chuon is his family’s name.

Samach is 22, and he is a Year 3 student at Angkor University as well as a part time teacher at Savong’s School in Bakong, 12kms east of Siem Reap.  By day he studies until noon and then he gets a tuktuik ride back to Bakong in order to teach until sunset which is almost always at 6:00pm, here near the equator. The days are long for Samach, the commute to and from University adds an hour to his commitments and at night he must prepare lessons and complete his assignments. He’s not complaining – but from an outsider’s point of view his life is hard.

Yet in some respects he is lucky also.

Samach is the seventh of nine children and while four siblings have got married and moved away, Samach and four others are supported by their parents, farmers who are typical of Bakong farmers: very poor because land plots are small, and the area is prone to devastating floods – or droughts. The father is 63 and the mother is 55 (both old enough to have lived through the worst of the Pol Pot years and the famine that followed. “Every day they try so hard to sustain the family,” says Samach. “I feel sorry for them.”

Samach studied well as a child, doing well at Prasat Bakong Primary School and then studying to Grade 12 at Hun Sen Prasat Bakong High School – the large area state school in the district. He was also in touch with Savong’s School from where he was awarded a university scholarship because of his excellent grades and in respect of his family’s low income.  “It has been great support,” he says. “With the aid of Savong School I am capable of continuing to study at university. I can’t believe I’ve had this opportunity.”

He studies for a Bachelor’s degree in Tourism, and is planning to gain a Masters degree as well – a rare achievement in rural Cambodia.

He’s determined. “Travelling is difficult and sometimes there are family problems, but I still don’t pack my study in.”

The scholarship has made a big difference – the difference between being able to study at University or not – and in the medium term it will help Samach pursue a well-paid career and enable him to fulfil his own dream of supporting his family. “My family will rely on me, down the road,” he says.

The University scholarship covers annual enrolment fees, a very basic salary, and daily transport into town as well as a laptop: an essential item for University.

As with the other scholarship winners, Samach gives back – by teaching younger children at the school – and inspiring other students to set high goals. “I would like to show my deep appreciation for your support,” he told Salas, who took the notes for this story. “To Savong Organisation Cambodia and supporters I wish you longevity, nobility, health and strength.”

 

Teaching quality in Cambodia – its not just local standards that need lifting

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Who are the foreigners who choose to teach these children in Cambodia?

My attention was drawn to an advertisement placed in a Facebook page, the very helpful and convivial Expats and locals living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which serves as a bulletin-board for the expat community who call Siem Reap home. Here you’ll find furnishing for sale, advice on Visa applications, what’s on at your favourite local bar and commentary and generally warm, realistic conversation about life in this bustling tourist town.

The advertisement was from a back-packer who wondered aloud whether there was an NGO that would provide food and accommodation in exchange for her teaching English. I must admit, I was somewhat taken aback: you want to rock up on your world adventure and get subsidised by local charitable organisations?

The fact is, the Cambodian education system has a very uneasy relationship with western teachers – who are at best a mixed bag of talents, ranging from the truly excellent down to the back-packers who bring zero experience into the Cambodian classroom.

There are two strata of foreign teachers. There are those who come to Cambodia to take up paid employment as teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL). Most of these teachers end up in Phnom Penh, where families are richer and can afford to send their children to Language Schools. These vary in quality – from bucket-shops that pay foreigners $US5.00 per hour, right through to top class schools that offer a salary of $30,000 or more: enormous by local standards.

I read one account of the ESL scene which was quite dispiriting – suggesting that among ESL teachers the good ones (those who are not in Cambodia for sex, drugs, holidays or ‘finding themselves’,) are in the distinct minority, and even among those there is a split between those who have become jaded and those who will become jaded and quit.

The blog struck me as extremely cynical, a little too world-weary in tone, but what surprised me were the comments: that basically said the author was right on the money – that anyone unqualified foreigner could get a teaching job within a few days of arrival because so many ESL places don’t have any standards in place – and that the name of the game is, in fact, money. The blogger describes backpackers as the most despised form of ESL teacher because they are willing to accept really low pay, and make it possible for the language schools to make staggering profits.

The second strand of the conversation revolves around NGOs, institutions that include the one I’m attached to, Savong’s School, but also many dozens of schools offering free education to the poor. Ten years ago we were in-fact active in trying to attract back-packers who might lend even a day or two to share their time and to help the students practice their English. Anyone was better than no-one.

Over time the standards of volunteer teachers has been raised, though not as high as we’d like things to go. For one thing, expectations have risen, and local teachers want to share their classroom with people who inspire – not people who need carrying.

Likewise, the framework for NGO schools has become more demanding. MOEYS expects schools to work to a set syllabus, and there’s no place for a foreigner to stand in front of the classroom just making stuff up.

Finally, there’s a real sense that local teachers are focusing more on lifting their skills in the classroom – to be professional in their approach and become better teachers than they themselves experienced.

For the ESL scene, I think an accreditation scheme is needed, and paid foreigners ought to provide proof of their teacher qualifications. Likewise, the ESL industry needs to become more transparent. The same as in many countries; the ESL sector is the wild-west.

For the NGO scene, (which is far from immune to criticism,) I see a different story emerging because there’s a shift from relying on foreign teachers towards greater reliance on Khmer staff. This is a good thing, but it brings with it a pressing challenge: to attract high calibre trainers of teachers.

Backpackers need not apply.

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.

Savong’s School – Primary school classes are open

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Savong’s school now serves primary school-aged children, Grades 1 through 5]

Over the past 12 months in this blog I have called up statistics from the Ministry of education youth and sport (MOEYS) which highlights the pressing shortage of primary school resources for the burgeoning young population of the nation. Teacher to student ratios are unwieldy –  1 teacher for every 47 young children, nationally. The need is similar in our community of Bakong. Another issue is that the state system has a tendency to charge families for what ought to be a free service. In some respects this is understandable, given the low levels of government spending toward education: low by global standards. Other critics however refer to school fees fundamentally as a bribe.

Savong’s school has always operated on the basis of providing free education. For the past nine years the school has focused on teaching languages and computer skills to older students grade 6 through to great 12. This year the decision was made to open up the school to serve primary students as well.

It was a practical decision; the senior classes run in the later afternoon and buildings were sitting quiet for a good part of the day. So why not open to classes up to teach the local community of young children who don’t get taught at the regions primary school. Five teachers have been recruited – all females as it turns out – and enrolments of local students took place in September. The local community is always wary of new services, and they want to know that their children are going to receive a quality education. So our starting figures are modest, and we’re going to build from here.

A total of 39 students, 19 girls and 20 boys, have been enrolled at the school and with teacher to student ratio of one to every eight, we can expect some pretty good results!

  • Why not share the joy of participating in this project by helping sponsor the teachers? If you’d like to find out more, please email me duncan@kudos-dynamics