Thieves

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A couple of nights ago thieves broke into Savong’s School. They climbed the locked school gates and tried to force a few locked doors and shuttered windows, without success before managing to prise apart the bars on a window and squeezing into the computer classroom from where they stole two laptop computers.  The matter has been referred to local police but we don’t hold out too much hope for the recovery of the computers.

Unfortunately theft is extremely common in Cambodia where there are many people looking for a quick way to make money or to cover debts.

But that’s why Savong’s School has bars on the classroom windows. From one viewpoint these bars look prison-like, and I have several photos where students are sitting by the windows, holding the bars and looking out – no doubt with longing to those outside playing volleyball.

But nobody forces our students to turn up to this school. They are free to come and go.  Unfortunately, there are some thieves who feel the same way.

Time, perhaps, to hire a local to guard the school.

 

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The writing on the wall – a boy with connections in Cambodia

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This last week in Cambodia everybody has been celebrating New Year. For many students, this means school is out and for those who live in town there may be all kinds of attractions including fairs, events, parades as well as traditional ceremonies. Cambodians celebrate everything of course with food, and this is a time for feasting.

But not for everyone. The boy above, Mouencheat has spent the last few days back in his rural village 40 km away from Siem Reap. Mouencheat lives in a place called Kampong Kdei which is in the heart of the flat, rice growing region due-east of Siem Reap, and it is in his family house there that I took this photo above, in November 2013.

I always wondered what the writing was, on the wall behind Mouencheat, and this last week as we messaged each other with New Year greetings, (Mouencheat on his smart phone,) I asked what had been written on the wall behind him. He told me that these are tallies of the amount of rice harvested, and the wall provided a handy place to jot-down this information. It serves the same purpose as the Post-It notes on my fridge.

Mouencheat lives at the SOC, in Bakong, and is sponsored by a Singaporean. The boy is very intelligent, and often when we message each other I send him number puzzles which he gleefully completes – quicker than I can generate the next.  He can spot the Fibonacci series from 20 paces! But this week he has been at home helping as mother on the farm, and looking after his younger sister.

A few days ago, during the holiday Mouencheat was visited by an older Cambodian named Kimleng.

Kimleng actually grew up in Kampong Kdei and may well be the first local to have earned a law degree, in this case from the USA. Kimleng spent some time in New Zealand in recent months and I had met him via a friend of mine. We were both amazed that each of us knew where Kampong Kdei even was! The world shrunk by another notch. When Kimleng said that he had grown up near the historic bridge, I knew exactly where he meant.

I am so glad that he met with Mouencheat, and I am sure he will act as an inspiration for the boy. I am certain that Mouencheat will go through university, and given his obvious intelligence, I await with great anticipation to see where he will end up. The writing on the wall is all good.

By the way, it is almost exactly a year since I first encountered Mouencheat. He did his research and contacted me, asking for assistance so he could go to school. Here’s the story from a year ago.

Cambodia: The growth in school enrolments since 1980

When the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power in 1979, Cambodia was a mess. The school system was of course just one of the victims of the regime, so in hindsight it has been remarkable that the number of children enrolled at school in Cambodia has risen to levels as good – or better – than those of the 1960s.

Two things drive these numbers. One is the number of children, which since 1990 has burgeoned. On the population pyramid below, we can see a dent in the numbers amongst those aged 35 to 39. That reflects the greatly diminished birthrate, as well is the greatly increased child mortality rate of the Pol Pot years. But since then Cambodia has experienced one of the highest birth rates in the world, peaking around 1990, but retaining high levels since then, though with a small decrease 10 to 15 years ago. (Source: http://www.indexmundi)

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Now let’s look at the school enrolments since 1980.  If anything, the growth of these school enrolments has been faster than the growth of population. The reason for this is the investment by both the government as well as by NGOs in the building of schools, and the removal of barriers to education, particularly in rural areas that were ill served previously. I won’t get into detailed figures here, but if I take the cohort who were born 15 years ago, a greater percentage of those have been attending school than their equivalents from the cohort five or 10 years older.

Don’t be alarmed by the downturn in the chart below. The recent decrease in primary school enrolments, is population driven, reflecting (as I mentioned above,) the recent decrease in birth rates 5 to 15 years ago. However numbers are expected to pick up again, judging by the figures in the population pyramid.

The chart below (based on MOEYS figures,) shows dramatically the overall rise in school enrolments since 1980, yet it shows just as dramatically the relatively skinny percentage of those enrolments that are occurring at upper secondary school level: grades nine through to 12.

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Cambodia faces challenges at each level of the education system.

Pre-School Right now, and not betrayed the figures above, is the challenge of introducing more preschoolers into the education system. The aim of this is to give these children a head start with reading, writing and social skills.

Primary School At the primary school level, as the chart above suggests, we appear to be at a moment of reprieve, whereby the available resources can be shared out amongst fewer children than previously experienced. However the primary schools sector is in the state of crisis at present because it is losing teaching staff rapidly. The reason for this is the historically poor levels of remuneration available for teaching staff. Many teachers are switching from primary to secondary schools in order to get more liveable wage.

Secondary School At the lower and upper secondary school level, there are several problems still. While teachers are highly regarded, and are on salaries that are comparatively generous – comparatively that is – there is still a shortage of trained teachers, and a terrible shortage of resources such as textbooks, science equipment and even such basics as whiteboard markers. By world standards the Cambodian government is a poor investor in its own education system. According to UNESCO figures, (2011)13.1% of government spending goes to education – skinny slice of the small pie.

From the perspective of Savong school in Bakong, Siem Reap, we can see how we have fitted in to the broad narrative of the post 1980 story. I think it is important for NGOs to keep evaluating their own role within the wider picture. Right now, Savong is examining the role of the school which works around the local secondary schools. They operate in the mornings, and so during those same mornings Savong’s School remains empty. The plan, due to be rolled out in October this year is to utilise the teaching and physical resource of the school in order to provide local rural students primary education services. This is quite apart from the language and computer teaching that his school already provides to senior students currently in grades 6 to 12.

For more facts and figures about the Cambodian education system:

 

Are girls lagging behind in the Cambodian school system?

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A long-held concern with the re-emergence of the Cambodian education system has been the worry that girls are being disadvantaged, perhaps for reasons of tradition (is it the girl’s place is to look after younger siblings?) and possibly for systemic reasons: for example more male teachers.

Well, the Ministry’s figures suggest girls are doing virtually as well as boys, overall, though are clearly disadvantaged in at least half a dozen of Cambodia’s provinces.

MOEYS (The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport,) has in its most recent census (2013) of school attendance measured the number of students who have successfully graduated past 3 goal-posts: Grade 6, 9 and 12 (which mark the completion grades for Primary, Lower Secondary and Secondary schools.)

Of those students who pass at each level, what percentage are girls? The answer, 49% for the lower grades, and 48% for Grade 12.

In other words almost exactly half of all students. A great result. More than this; the figures are almost identical when we compare Urban schools with Rural schools. Here are the MOEYS statistics.

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In half a dozen provinces, (I’ve indicated these in oranges and red) however, there is room for improvement and the Ministry, to it’s credit, is working to ensure gender equality within the education system.

For more fresh data about Education in Cambodia:

Ramy and Me.

Ramy and Me.

Ramy is one of the students at the Savong Student Center in Siem Reap. Sponsored by the USA-based Savong Foundation the center provides accommodation for older students who come from the countryside – some of whom used to live at the SOC in Bakong. The student center provides a transition zone for these young guys – a flatting situation where they look after themselves, but also the support they need to study – either through completion of High School, or university.

Savong’s School takes another step.

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Agony or Ecstasy? Students at Savong’s School clamour to see how they fared in the latest exams.

Hey I’m back. It’s been a month between blogs in part due to a need to recharge my batteries and also to give you gracious followers a break!

This last week I had a terrific Skype call withe Savong regarding the school. This year marks our tenth year of working together and I’ve often reflected on how the vision of Savong – to provide free education that gives a vocational boost to poor rural students – has remained intact while the expression of this vision has had to move with the times. Ten years ago providing language skills that would get a student work in a guest house was truly aspirational. Today that vocation is pretty basic and students are wanting to reach higher. Some want to be doctors, lawyers and business owners. Their dreams are bigger.

What Savong talked about is a reconfiguration of his school which two weeks ago received fresh licensing from the Ministry of Education, Youth & Sport (MOEYS) and is seen by Government as part of the network of local official schools rather than as an NGO “rival” to the State system. That distinction is important because up until now Savong School has been operating in a complementary fashion to the local high school in Bakong. When it operated in the morning, Savong’s school opened in the afternoons: the aim being to give local students a booster shot of additional education.

This year Bakong High School extended its hours, which we’re certainly not complaining about, but it has squeezed Savong School opening hours later and later. Right now it opens not at 2:00pm but at 4:00pm and finishes in the black of night which in Cambodia arrives at 7:00pm. This is late for the students, and less safe for those who walk to their homes.

Rather than be sandwiched like this, Savong sees a better solution which is to extend the hours of the school and to teach a wider syllabus including Khmer lessons (mathematics, history) as well as the languages and computer skills already taught.  Students would be allowed to choose this school rather than Bakong High School and of course Savong would stick to the core vision of providing free education. State Schools are supposed to be free, but the practice of charging a monthly fee to help boost teacher salaries is widespread and hurts poorer families.

Examinations held at Savong School will – as they are already – be recognised by the State system.

The change of syllabus offering needs planning. Teachers, support textbooks need to be prepared, and any change needs to be carefully communicated to the community. Savong is picturing any changes to take place in October when the new school year begins.

I’m very excited by Savong’s plans and look forward to the additional service and support his school can offer local students.

Here’s the latest on the new school plans. Can you assist?