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Bilingual education balances development hopes with cultural integrity for ethnic minority children

UNICEF Cambodia/2011/K. Meas

Bilingual education teachers and School Board Committee members of Pou Til community school, Stung Treng

By Eamonn Casey

STUNG TRENG, June 2011 – Cambodia has made significant progress in education provision in the last two decades, with much stronger enrolment and attendance, the gender gap at primary and secondary levels virtually closed, and the possibility of meeting the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary enrolment by 2015.

While around 95 per cent of children of primary school age are now enrolled in Cambodia, high drop-out rates are still a problem, as is coverage among students marginalised due to poverty, geography, gender and ethnicity. A combination of these factors often prevents children from Cambodia’s ethnic minorities from getting an education. The literacy rate among ethnic groups is way below the national average and abysmally low for girls.

In the north-eastern province of Rattanakiri, for instance, various ethnic groups make up an estimated 57 per cent of inhabitants. All speak their own language and practice their own religion. Few speak Khmer, the national language, and those that do have limited competence.

In the remotest areas of Rattanakiri, less than 10 per cent of children complete primary school and very few indigenous children move on to secondary education. Children of ethnic Khmer families, who constitute just a third of the population, account for 85 per cent of students at the province’s three high schools, while children of Tampoun heritage, who constitute 24 per cent of Rattanakiri’s population, represent only two per cent of enrolment.

Many children in remote areas like these have not had access to schooling since families settled there after the upheavals of the violent Khmer Rouge regime, more than 20 years ago. “For many years, since we settled our community here, we have had no chance to access schooling. No one thought or talked about education at that time,” said one of the elders in O Kapine village in Stung Treng province. “It is hard for us to communicate with people in the Khmer language because we know only a few words.”

“We hope that, with our strong support, the new generation will be able to preserve our culture, language and traditional ways of life – but [by speaking Khmer], they will also have better jobs as civil servants or government officials,” he added.

Within ethnic minority communities, children’s access to primary school is often limited by the teaching being in Khmer, even where a majority of children are from non-Khmer-speaking minorities. This contributes to lower enrolment rates and high repetition and drop-out rates in lower grades of primary school among ethnic minority groups, representing a significant obstacle to children’s future educational and economic prospects.

The government, donors, NGOs and UN agencies are increasingly working together to improve the provision of bilingual education, with UNICEF providing financial and technical support in the interest of inclusive education and child-friendly schooling. According to Natalia Mufel, a UNICEF Education Specialist, “the aim of bilingual education is to ensure equitable access to education for children from ethnic minorities, many of whom have not had an opportunity to attend school, or who repeat classes, fail or drop out because they do not understand the teaching in Khmer’.

There are more than 20 ethnic minority groups in the five north-eastern provinces of Stung Treng, Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, Kratie and Preah Vihear. For some, especially those living in or alongside Khmer-speaking communities, they have schools they can attend. But many others—especially in more remote or isolated areas, where many minority ethnic groups live—face great difficulty in getting even the most basic education.

In Mondulkiri Province, for example, 16 of 92 ethnic minority villages (or 17 per cent) have no primary schools. Another 17 villages have only ‘incomplete schools’, not offering all the grades.

In what has emerged as a very important initiative for Cambodia, the NGOs CARE and International Cooperation Cambodia began a pilot bilingual education project in Rattanakiri in 2002, with the support of UNICEF. That started bringing basic education to ethnic minority groups in their own languages, while using Khmer script (alphabet and consonants), since many indigenous groups have only an oral language culture.

From 2006, the Provincial Offices of Education started implementing bilingual education in community schools in Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri, using the CARE model. In 2007-2008, Stung Treng Province started offering bilingual education for the Kaveth community in the villages of O Kapine, Khe Nang and Talé in Siem Pang District.

There is now increasing effort by Stung Treng Provincial Office of Education to ensure that all school-aged ethnic minority children are offered bilingual education. The last few years have seen intensive work on planning, standard-setting, training, implementation and monitoring. Practitioners have also done energetic and successful advocacy for bilingual education with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, provincial and district governors, and commune councils to bring them on board. Guidelines for bilingual education have also been developed (and were adopted in 2010), drawing heavily on the CARE model, with the input of a wide range of partners.

As more and more stakeholders and education partners buy into bilingual education, its provision has expanded apace, though more is still needed. In Siem Pang District, near the Laos border in Stung Treng Province, there are now 18 early primary grade classes for 278 students (including 120 girls) from the Kaveth ethnic group in the villages of O Kapine, Talé and Khe Nang. Bilingual classes like these are also increasingly taking place in Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri.

The advantages are clear and welcome to the students involved. Four years ago, Plev Yeb (16 years) and Phek Pa (15 years) from Pou Til village could not understand or use the Khmer language at all, but now all school aged children in the community can speak, read and write both Khmer and Phnorng.

“I am lucky to access schooling, compared to my older brothers and sisters,” said one student. “I can speak both my local language and Khmer. I can communicate with people from elsewhere in Cambodia through Khmer, especially people working for NGOs who come here to develop our community.”

Bilingual education also seems to be bringing provincial and local officials closer to the people. “Up to now it was difficult for us to talk with people from the ethnic communities using Khmer, and it was hard for us to disseminate information related to education, health and community development activities,” said one local education official in Stung Treng. “It took time to translate from Khmer to the local language and vice versa.”

Importantly, bilingual education is also making the move from community to state schools – and with early success. In an effort to tackle high drop-out and class repetition rates in some state schools where a majority of students are from ethnic or linguistic minority backgrounds, the Provincial Office of Education in Rattanakiri incorporated bilingual education into seven state schools in 2009-2010.

The experience has been encouraging so far, with an increase in enrolment for ethnic minority children of primary school age, a lower drop-out rate than before and an increase in the proportion of students successfully advancing to the next grade.

In Stung Treng, the Provincial Office of Education is providing bilingual education in three state schools this year, and Mondulkiri Province is planning for expanded provision.

In all, there are specific plans to expand bilingual education for ethnic minority students in Stung Treng, Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, Kratie and Preah Vihear Provinces, with 34 new bilingual education classes scheduled for these five provinces in 2011-2012.

“We are happy to support community schools with the small budget that we have, and with our labour if needed,” explained one provincial education official, “in order to give more chance to our ethnic minority children to learn better through bilingual education.”

Few countries in the Asia Pacific region have managed to take this important step, which will allow for significantly greater access to quality schooling for children who do not speak the national language at home. Cambodia therefore serves as a role model for its neighbours.



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