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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The government crackdown on school exam cheats

CAMBODIA PLUS BACK TO WORK MAY 09 097

A fishy pass rate in 2013 – virtually halved after a crackdown on Grade 12 cheating.

It is interesting to consider the extent – rife by any measure – of high school exam cheating in Cambodia. the figures are stark: 2013 the Grade 12 exams were wide open to cheating, and 83% passed. In 2014 following a crackdown on cheating, just 39% passed. Ouch!

How and why should cheating be so widespread in a land where there is a fairly strong religious moral code at work?

  • For one thing, there is a desperate profit motive – and a widespread form of cheating was always made possible by the willingness of some teachers to copy and sell answer sheets for the exams.
  • Second, as in countries like Italy, (or, dare I say, in New Zealand or the USA,) there is a distinction made between personal morality versus one’s stance towards a government which is largely distrusted. You wouldn’t cheat your family, but you might happily ‘beat the system.’
  • Third, the high-stakes for the grade 12 students. Passing those exams is like a gateway to a better future. Failure at this point has huge long-term repercussions. The small act of cheating today has had little downside, while it has potentially massive upsides: the risk is worth it.
  • Fourth – very poor exam supervision. In 2013 newspaper reports quoted students as saying they actively passed notes and answers around to their fellow students. There were an inadequate number of independent monitors, and of course some of the teachers who were doing the monitoring were the same teachers who had previously sold the answers.
  • Fifthly, nobody foresaw the ease with which social media could be employed to share the answers around the exam hall. With the ownership of smart phones being so high, it was easy for students to create Facebook pages dedicated to sharing answers among friends. Phones were allowed in the exam rooms.
  • Finally, and I don’t want to make this sound like an excuse, but the culture of Cambodians is very us oriented, rather than me oriented. In the classroom, students actively help each other. They are not out to succeed at the expense of their classmates. Exams are not a competition so much as a team exercise.

In 2014 the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport staged a well executed national crackdown on school exam cheats. They enacted a strategy designed to prevent teachers and examiners from publishing in advance the exam questions and answers. Given this was never going to be the whole answer, the Ministry also conducted body frisks on students entering the exam rooms. They confiscated cheat sheets and telephones. Lots of them! Finally, the authorities conducted much more rigorous supervision during the exams. Students who were used to whispering answers to friends remained quiet in 2014.

The crackdown in 2014 was a great step forward for a transparent and fair education system. Yes, many students learned that old-fashioned study and hard work are the most certain ways of graduating from grade 12. Ironically, the group who had in the short term had most to lose, were the tertiary institutions. Enrolments were down sharply for 2015, causing an unexpected cash flow problem for several universities.

See also: Exam result show dive in 2014.

See more education facts and figures.

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.

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:

How qualified are the teachers of Cambodia? Ministry figures say it’s improving.

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The 2013 census conducted by MOEYS found that of all teaching staff in Cambodia (primary and secondary) one in every 8 now has a degree – a dramatic improvement over the figures from 5 or 10 years ago.

However a third of teachers have not completed High School – and this is a major challenge for the education system especially with regards to lifting the standards of Primary School teaching.

See also: A teacher shortage in rural areas. And how many students complete the voyage all the way past Grade 12? See the completion rate data. This is all sourced from the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport. (MOEYS)

A crisis is looming in teaching circles: a growing shortage of primary school teachers in rural areas. For more on this – click here. In fact here’s a story written in Cambodian Daily which starkly tells the story. Great piece of writing.

The voyage through school: how many make it past Grade 12?

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The Cambodian Ministry of Youth Education and Sport (MOEYS) has recently published a lot of education related data which, at last, gives us reasonably current information about the state of education in Cambodia today. One of the most telling figures comes from a table which charts the  percentage of eligible students who make it past primary school, lower secondary school as well as upper secondary school. The results for Cambodia as a whole show that less than half of young Cambodians are making it past grade 9. Just over a quarter complete the voyage through the school system, and graduate from grade 12.

The figures show there is a long way to go, but more so in rural and poor areas of Cambodia. Look at the contrast between the Phnom Penh figures, and those of Siem Reap. This is precisely the challenge and reason for Savong’s School to be established in rural Siem Reap. And our effort is a drop in the ocean.

Incidentally the boy in the photograph, Seanghai, is quite handily beating the statistics. He comes from Phnom Penh, though now he lives and studies in Siem Reap and is supported by the Savong Foundation. By next year he will be in university, so long as he keeps studying hard!

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?

By the way, if you don’t know me, my name is Duncan Stuart and I’m a New Zealand based writer and researcher and supporter of Savong’s School in Cambodia. I love to write and would love your company – how about clicking the “follow button.”  Thanks!