Protecting decades of progress in Cambodian education

Education is of crucial importance to Cambodia’s future. That’s why UNICEF, the Cambodian Government and partners worked together with determination to ensure schools could re-open last week.

Jaime Gill
Saev Yes, a 12 year old school boy, contemplates his future on the day that Cambodia's schools re-opened
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Daravatey Seng
16 September 2020

Ratanakiri, 7 September, 2020 - “When school closed, I really missed it, I just wanted to go back... I’m much happier now, knowing I can learn again. In fact, I want to become a teacher to pass on knowledge to others”, Saev Yes, 12, Ratanakiri (pictured above).

On 7 September, a difficult period for 3.2 million Cambodian children began to end as schools opened their gates for the first time in six months. Children like Saev Yes were finally able to learn and play with their friends again in a safe environment. This moment was made possible due to an enormous and ongoing joint effort by the Royal Government of Cambodia, UNICEF and many partners. The effort includes a national information campaign telling Cambodians how to protect themselves, the supply of hygiene equipment and information to every school in Cambodia, and the co-development of a blended education approach which includes both online learning and physical school attendance to minimize the lingering risk of COVID-19.

Sending children back to school is of course one of the most urgent and complex challenges many countries are wrestling with, but this sense of urgency is perhaps even sharper in Cambodia. Here, the education system and its teachers were destroyed in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge. Much progress had been made in the decades since and it must be protected.

Since day one of the COVID-19 closures, UNICEF has acted as a frontline responder to the education crisis, working hand in hand with the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport (MoEYS) to keep children learning despite the difficult circumstances. Within weeks, UNICEF and partners developed a distance learning curriculum. To be suitable for every child, it was made available in print as well as online, and came in braille, audio and multilingual versions. The materials were used over 11 million times.

Schoolchildren in Ratanakiri, Cambodia, washing their hands.
UNICEF Cambodia/2020/Daravatey Seng
Schoolchildren in Cambodia washing their hands on the week that schools re-opened using hygiene equipment supplied by UNICEF in partnership with generous donors. Hygiene equipment and educational supplies are two of the foundational elements required for this national milestone.

Even as schools closed, UNICEF and the Government were already planning their re-opening. Working with the education sector, UNICEF coordinated input from multiple partners to support MoEYS in creating robust guidelines for distance learning and school re-opening. We also worked closely with the Government, international organisations such as WHO, and NGO partners to develop a user-friendly handbook for school directors and teachers on how to re-open safely. This guide draws upon four globally accepted principles for school re-opening: health and safety, teaching and learning, inclusion and wellbeing, and protection.

UNICEF is further supporting the re-openings with the provision of hygiene supplies to reach all 13,300 schools. A nationwide Back to School Safe and Healthy campaign was launched within days of MoEYS announcing children could return. Vibrant, culturally resonant content is reaching children, parents, caregivers and teachers with messages on handwashing and hygiene, as well as broader health, nutrition, and safety content.

Tean Saroeun teaches in a school serving one of Cambodia’s indigenous communities in the remote province of Ratanakiri. “I felt so upset about my students earlier this year, worried they would drop out forever,” he said, the day after his school re-opened. “Now I’m much happier because I know we can bring them back …I just want them to finish their education, so they go on to a better life, for them and their families.”

While recovery and re-opening were the top priorities by necessity, it was important that the opportunity should also be seized to support schools to not just recover but redevelop in new and more equitable directions. This ambition was reinforced by the “Recover. Rebound. Reimagine” ethos promoted by UNICEF East Asia and Pacific, and drove the successful application for a US$7 million Accelerated Funding grant from the Global Partnership for Education.

The grant will enable the Cambodian education sector to continue reaching out to families and children, reinforcing the message that schools are now open and safe. It will also enable further adaptation of learning environments to make them stronger, more resilient and more effective - a strong foundation on which to build future progress.

“Responding to a crisis of such enormity has only been possible through deep, trusting partnerships throughout the education sector,” said Foroogh Foyouzat, Representative of UNICEF in Cambodia. “We are working closely with the Government and the whole sector to not just reopen but also put in place improvements which will reap deep and long-lasting rewards in the future. Our work doesn’t stop here, but there is an absolute determination to create the best outcomes for children. Cambodia’s education has come so far and we cannot afford to see it slip backwards.”

Parents agree. “I was worried about the kids’ education because most of our generation didn’t go to school, and I want better for them,” said Tienh Ear, a 29-year-old mother in Ratanakiri. “I saw all the new books and supplies arrive and I feel like the school can help our children learn and stay safe. I want my children to grow up with knowledge and have a better life than us.”

The challenges aren’t over yet by any means. Many children may not return to school immediately, some because of health fears, and some because poverty has forced them into a work. There is a risk they will drop out forever if sustained and creative efforts aren’t made to include them in the education system’s recovery, and that is just what we will do, on behalf of children like Siev Lin, a 13 year old from Ratanakiri. “I just want to learn and have knowledge,” he said. “I was afraid for my education when schools closed. Now I am just so happy to be back in class.”

To Siev Lin, Saev Yes, and all of the school children in Cambodia, we wish a happy return to school and a future full of learning and opportunities.