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Cambodia: UNICEF Education Adviser from Eastern and Southern Africa finds similar issues around early childhood education

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©UNICEF/2007/Sonia Yeo
UNICEF Education Adviser for Eastern and Southern Africa, Aster Haregot, speaks to Chorn Nga, a teacher at Prey Kuy community preschool.

By Sonia Yeo

KAMPONG THOM, Cambodia, 2 April 2007 – “Cambodia and African countries have very distinct cultures,” says Aster Haregot, UNICEF Regional Education Adviser for Eastern and Southern Africa, “but in terms of problems of access to quality basic education, we have similar challenges and issues.”

This was one of many observations made by Haregot, who came from East Africa to Cambodia for the annual UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific Education Officers meeting. Early childhood development was the focus of her field visit to Kampong Thom, and Haregot saw many similarities with Africa. But more importantly, she observed opportunities for learning and exchanging information. 

“I was very impressed by the cooperation between the community and the government schools,” says Haregot. “It is usually difficult to link the two, but in Cambodia, I witnessed community preschools acting as ‘feeders’ for primary education. And parental intervention is very important, which I saw here as well.”

Access to early childhood development is still very limited in Cambodia, as it is in many African countries. According to government statistics, the pre-primary enrolment rate for Cambodia’s five-year-olds in school year 2006-2007 was 27.7 per cent – including state, community, home-based and private preschool classes.

Yet this low figure is more than double the 11.7 per cent coverage only three years before. Government commitment and the expansion of community-based preschools account for the increase, according to UNICEF.

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© UNICEF/2007/Sonia Yeo
In line with the decentralization process under way in Cambodia and the growing autonomy of commune councils – the governing structures at the community level – UNICEF has advocated for and secured a focal point for women and children in each commune.

Pham Kanja has worked as the women and children focal point in Prey Kuy commune for the past two years. Her responsibilities include monitoring preschool classes and providing technical support to teachers.

Although progress on expanding preschool classes has been impressive, sustainability poses the greatest challenge to the ambitious goal of 50 per cent coverage by 2010 set by the government of Cambodia. UNICEF has provided financial assistance for the salaries of community preschool teachers. There is concern, however, that the gradual phasing out of UNICEF support within the next four years will thwart progress made to date.

“If UNICEF phases out, it will be hopeless to continue,” says Pham, “because we don’t have the budget to pay for the teachers, who need to earn an income to support their families. If the commune council has the budget, it may continue, but it is unlikely, since their funds are usually spent on infrastructure.”

Government and UNICEF officials maintain that early childhood development programmes have proved over and over that preschool encourages on-time enrolment in primary school and improves academic performance.

Cham Chun Hoeun, a community preschool teacher in Kampong Svay, regularly checks on her students who are now in primary school. When a school director needed a student to sing at an opening ceremony, Cham relates, “one of my students volunteered to sing a song in front of 100 students. My students are not only braver than other children, when they enter grade 1 they have better communication skills and are better prepared to follow teachers’ instructions. And their parents are also happier, because they are more polite.”


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©UNICEF/2007/Sonia Yeo
Three year-olds at a state-run preschool.

To overcome the sustainability issue and the barriers to delivering early childhood programmes that Cambodia will likely face in the near future, Haregot sees home-based preschool classes “as an affordable and doable option for early learning and socialization. They are not so common in Africa and should be explored further.”

Home-based education is not a new initiative, but it is being revived and scaled up in Cambodia as a means to expand early learning opportunities. In this model, groups of mothers come together and select one mother who will receive compensation to demonstrate learning activities to the others – who can then perform these activities with their children.

Haregot is taking home several lessons learned from Cambodia and from colleagues in East Asia and the Pacific. But she claims that the region can also learn from the experiences in Africa.

“We have a more conscious and deliberate girls’ education programme,” says Haregot “due to our experience with the African Girls’ Education Initiative (AGEI),” launched in 1994 and phased out in 2003. AGEI preceded the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), a global partnership between United Nations agencies, international non-governmental organizations and the donor community working to get all children, girls and boys, into school by 2015.

In Cambodia, girls’ enrolment still lags behind boys’, at 90 per cent and 93 per cent, respectively, according to government statistics. And the gap becomes more significant in secondary school. Moreover, 36 per cent of students are overage and are more likely to drop out of school, especially in later primary school years.

Sau Bunchea, Director of Kampong Svay primary school claims that girls aged 13–16 who attend school at the primary level often quit school and move to such cities as Phnom Penh to work in garment factories. He explains that typically, they move by themselves or with friends, making them more vulnerable to trafficking and abuse.  Gender focal points have been established in the school to follow up on drop outs, but early childhood programmes are also seen as preventative tools, as they encourage enrolment at the right age and improved academic performance, which can help girls complete school on time.

UNICEF officials from most countries in East Asia and the Pacific do not consider girls’ education to be an issue because disparities are being reduced, particularly at the lower primary school level. “This region may not have a problem in terms of enrolment,” notes Haregot, “but they probably have issues of empowerment, which is a universal issue.”

 


 

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Related links
eDiscussion 1: Early Childhood Care and Education

Early childhood care and education is the forgotten link in the education chain [October 2006]