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Education in rural Cambodia - some of the challenges of success

The Cambodia Charitable Trust ( was established to break the poverty cycle through education.  After 5 years of supporting education in rural Cambodia we were faced last year with a new challenge arising directly as a result of that support. Our focus had been to make sure a Primary School education was available to every child and was able to be achieved. Last year we were faced with the consequence of hundreds of children finishing Primary School and moving onto Secondary School.

When we started in 2008 our first step was to get all the children to school by giving them clothing (a white shirt and blue skirt or pants for $10) and notebook and pens. We provided teachers with a small subsidy on the basis they would not ask from money from the children. The enrolment levels rose. This placed already limited resources under more strain, but we were ready.

We selected the most desperate families who were too poor to send all of their children to school. Often the girls were kept home to work or were sent overseas and often from there, trafficked. Individuals sponsored one girl per family to attend school. To educate a girl is to educate a village. Enrolment parity climbed.

Our next step was to improve teaching quality by providing library books and text books, teaching workshops and teaching materials. We provided the teachers with the tools they needed to be able to teach. We improved sanitation by building toilets and storing clean drinking water. The drop-out rate dropped.

It took time but gradually the quality of teaching improved and children started to actually learn. The teachers learned interactive teaching techniques and had their own knowledge of the curriculum improved. The repetition rate dropped.

Children wanted to finish Primary School, and, because they had developed a love of learning they wanted to go to Secondary School. In March 2012 we visited one of the secondary schools that our supported Primary Schools feed into and it was overfull. Next year children would need to be turned away. We were faced with a daunting challenge.

However thanks to the generosity of our supporters and our tenacity with the Cambodian Ministry of Education, we paid 2/3 of the cost of 6 new classrooms and the Ministry paid 1/3. Demonstrating the community’s love of education the community paid for the floors of these rooms to be tiled. These rooms are being used this month for the first time as school starts for the new year in Cambodia. “The whole community is very proud of this school. It is the most beautiful school in the World in their eyes” Ouch Soeun, Country Manager, CCTNZ.

This is a huge success for the Cambodia Charitable Trust and the partnership between us, the Ministry and the community is one we are very proud of. We are all volunteers so 100% of all donations go to the projects in Cambodia and this approach has paid off with people being prepared to support the trust.

My next step is to conduct research into the factors that influence teaching quality in Cambodia from the teacher perspective and come up with innovative ways to get the best quality education we can for our limited budget.  Do you have any suggestions as to how to measure educational quality of programmes to ensure the delivery of quality teaching in a developing country? Do you have any experience and advice about conducting research around education in Cambodia?

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Comment by Hazel Owen on October 28, 2013 at 15:20

This is inspirational Denise. It feels like a really well-thought out initiative (e.g. offering opportunities for professional development to the teachers so that they can design and facilitate effective learning well as the stipend for teachers so that they don't have to charge the students to come to school). The community obviously 'own' the initiative too, which is incredibly important for sustainability. And, I really like the notion that there are ongoing responsibilities. When empowering people there are likely to be 'consequences', and often these will require ongoing support around ways forward.

I found on the Cambodia Charitable Trust blog site, the following excerpt (written by Jane in 2011); which provides a glimpse into some of the challenges that have been faced, and which led to the 'next step' that you describe:

School visits – in some ways everything is the same. Same heat, same terrible roads, same schools, same greeting from the School Director and teachers….But take a second look and the differences are huge. New books displayed in libraries; new librarians showing us the recording system for children taking books home (YAY!); teachers mingling with the children in their class - engaged with them rather than conducting chanting drills from the front; water filters with actual functioning filters in them; toilets!

Of course it’s not all good news and one school in particular hasn’t made much progress since January. After that visit we all went back to the guesthouse feeling pretty discouraged, but a night’s sleep and some reflection got our perspective and determination back. Its hard not to just go in with a big stick and say do this and this or we’ll withdraw our support, which would probably be the Western way. But that would leave the kids without the education which, after all, is the reason we’re there… So we go back to our roots; local solutions for local problems, and go back to our advisers and ask what we can do to help change things. It’s very good for the patience and temper control! But this approach worked so well with Baknoem Primary School, which was way behind the others in January, and has made huge progress this time.

We saved the ‘best’ school for last to end on a high note. The school looks fantastic and the Ministry of Education has acknowledged that by making it a ‘model school’ for its ‘cluster’ of schools. We had a whale of a time hearing all the positive things that were happening, and talking to the brilliant School Director there.

You ask about research into the factors that influence teaching quality from the teacher perspective. This is quite a big question (and I'd love to have a more in depth discussion around some of the things you might be considering / want to consider). In part it depends on the scale of the research, the resources you have access to (e.g. time, money, researchers, research assistants), your philosophical view of what comprises meaningful research, and how far along the design track you are :-)

In the meantime, I've done a little bit of homework, and would highly recommend reading:

Comment by Christine Kaye Woodwiss on October 25, 2013 at 7:40

The Cambodia Charitable Trust is achieving amazing results. If ever you have the chance to hear Denise talk about the children you will feel and share her passion.  A Trust worthy of support in any way you can.

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