Reach for the stars

How one school is leading by example for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene standards in Schools.

Lydia Darby
Children at Tuol Thmor primary school undertake supervised handwashing activities.
UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Lydia Darby

22 January 2020

December 18th – Kampong Cham. Tuol Thmor primary school in Kampong Cham has met the national standards and achieved the status of a ‘Three Star School’. What does that mean? We chatted to school director Seang Samnang about his school’s achievement improving the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) standards of his school.

Sitting in his office on a bright, sunny day in December, Samnang told us how Tuol Thmor achieved three stars by prioritising the most essential actions. They met children’s needs through key interventions such as ensuring all students wash their hands with soap, have access to safe drinking water, and are provided with clean, gender-segregated toilets that are appropriate for their age. Director Samnang explained, “change was slow and there was lots of resistance to different practices. We did our best to change gradually and transform these habits.”

Showing us videos of different hygiene skills sessions with his students, he explained, “I took the senior management and teachers to a school in Thailand, so we could all learn more about their strategies for WASH in schools. After we returned, we made a plan to change this school, our staff and students’s behaviour – and achieve three stars.” 

The Three Star Approach for WASH in schools is a field guide that helps schools meet the essential criteria for a healthy and protective learning environment for children as part of the broader child-friendly schools initiative. The approach ensures that healthy habits are taught, practised and integrated into daily school routines. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is a co-publisher of this field guide.

Children at Tuol Thmor primary school undertake supervised handwashing activities.
UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Lydia Darby
Children at Tuol Thmor primary school undertake supervised handwashing activities.

Daily supervised hand-washing sessions are a fundamental component of the Three Star Approach. During these sessions, all students as a group wash their hands with soap once a day, before meals or snack time. This group activity in school is designed to reinforce the habits of good hygiene behaviour and uses the positive power of social norms and peer encouragement to strengthen healthy actions. “Before, students got sick and were absent a lot. Now, absence from sickness is almost zero per cent,” said Samnang. Handwashing with soap has been found to reduce school absenteeism by 43% fewer days, according to Global Handwashing data from 2019.[1]

Samnang believes that his biggest personal achievement was his “patience and commitment.” But there were challenges too. “For me, I needed to adapt. Sometimes I’m so invested in this school that I don’t spend any time at home,” Samnang told us laughing. 


[1] https://globalhandwashing.org/global-handwashing-day-2019-clean-hands-for-all-for-sustainable-development/

Children at Tuol Thmor primary school play during breaktime. A healthy school makes for a happy learning environment.
UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Lydia Darby
Children at Tuol Thmor primary school play during breaktime. A healthy school makes for a happy learning environment.

Another challenge has been student’s poor practices at home. “They learn good habits here and then forget them when they get home, so there are pull and push factors. This is a challenge I still need to address,” Samnang explained. To engage the community, he is thinking about inviting parents to come and see the work they are doing. Yet there is already evidence of improvement in the community. The teachers at Toul Thmor school have instructed their students to share their learnings with their families. This is working, as we were told a military general recently met with Samnang and shared that his grandchildren, who attend this school, now tell him off for being untidy around the home! “The impact is starting to reach beyond the school,” says Samnang.

Achieving three-star status was not the result of Samnang’s work alone. “The school director is like the driver, first I must lead and change myself, then we will achieve sustainable change together,” he explained. Everyone at this school has contributed. “The students have demonstrated great solidarity, cleaning together and sharing responsibility,” said Samnang, “the student council take it in turns.” 

Students at Tuol Thmor primary school with UNICEF Education Officer Nhean.
UNICEF Cambodia/2019/Lydia Darby
Students at Tuol Thmor primary school with UNICEF Education Officer Nhean.

The five student council leaders described their school’s achievement and its impact. “We’ve seen changes in the community, good people collect the trash that other people throw on the ground,” said 13-year-old Nydari Srey. “There is a strong link between a safe, clean learning environment and your education. My fellow students have a good feeling and are motivated to learn,” said 14-year-old Meoun Srey. 

While the entire school community takes the lead for meeting the One Star requirements, to achieve Three Stars both community support and support from the national education system and other government bodies are important. Many schools in Cambodia are still at one or zero-star levels, meaning there is little to no handwashing or hygiene promotion, WASH infrastructure is poor and there may still be open defecation. After schools embrace the approach and achieve One Star status, there is scope for moving up to Three Star status. Samnang’s motto is “a good head, a good heart, and good hands” and that’s how he describes his commitment to forming a plan, having the desire to implement it and then actually doing it. “Make a good plan and the rest will come,” is his advice for one and two-star schools.

Despite achieving three-star status, Samnang told us, “we are not 100% done. We need to do more and there is always room for improvement.” The school is currently working on re-fresher training for staff and methods of consolidating behaviour change practices.