Students learn basic greetings at the Chrava village community preschool
Kratie Province, Cambodia, December 2016 - The cheerful chatter of 16 children resonates through the pagoda in Chrava village, which doubles as a community preschool five days a week for nine months of the year. Today, the students learn to introduce themselves and greet others. The school is one of three community preschools in Kou Loab commune providing vital skills to children aged 3 to 5.
Five-year-old Im Reaksa is one of the 16 students, now in her second year at the school.
Reaska’s three older siblings (aged 13, 17 and 19) never attended preschool.
“Reaksa has more self confidence and is smarter because she is attending school,” her mother, Lol Saveth, says. “She does her homework every day, writing her Khmer alphabet. She tells me what she learns and practices it at home, like hand-washing with soap, and even encourages us to do the same.” Saveth is happy and proud of her daughter’s achievements, and dreams of Reaksa going on to higher education.
In 2015, Saveth attended a meeting held by the Chrava village chief to announce the first community preschool in her village. He encouraged all parents to enroll their three- to five-year-olds. Saveth, whose home is close to the school, registered Reaska immediately, but the majority of those who lived further away (about two kilometers) did not.
Instruction is free, but Saveth still had to invest in a school uniform and bag for her daughter, no small sum for this family of modest means.
Saveth and her daughter Reaksa after class
In Cambodia, only roughly 35 per cent of children aged 3 to 5 have access to preschool, according to 2014 government figures. While this is a drastic improvement from 10 years ago, when only 1 in 10 children were enrolled in preschools, it is still far from the goal of universal preschool education, including for those with disabilities or from ethnic minority communities. Early education is a vital experience in a child’s growth and development, paving the way for academic and professional success in the years to come.
To support more opportunities for Cambodian children, UNICEF has been supporting community preschools with assistance from the Japan Committee for UNICEF. It is helping communes establish community preschools to provide critical cognitive, physical, social and emotional abilities and prepare children for entry into primary school at age 6. UNICEF works in partnership with commune councils; provincial offices of education, youth and sport and provincial offices of women’s affairs to plan, budget and establish the community preschools. UNICEF also contributes to the basic teacher salary and the provision of supplies for teaching, learning and play.
Teacher trainings have been a special focus since preschool teachers usually don’t have backgrounds in early childhood education. The trainings aim to equip new preschool teachers with quality teaching methodology.
UNICEF also supports the Cambodian Government to develop plans for decentralized preschool teacher training based on approved standards for state preschool teachers and community preschool training. At the same time, efforts are being made to implement inclusive education in preschools that includes children with disabilities and children from ethnic minority communities who require instruction in their native tongues. These efforts are helping Cambodian children access the important benefits of preschool education.
In Saveth’s province of Kratie, these measures will result in another 13 trained community preschool teachers by the end of 2016. And in her commune of Kou Loab, one of UNICEF’s 65 target communes, UNICEF is promoting early childhood care and education by supporting commune-level investment planning.
Kang Voleak, a teacher at Reaksa’s school and also from Chrava village, was certified as a community preschool teacher following the Provincial Office of Education’s 35-day intensive trainings, for which UNICEF Cambodia’s Education programme offered budgetary support and instructional guidance.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “I enjoy playing with small children and have never found it difficult to manage them. Above all, I like children.”
Back row, from left to right: A pupil’s mother, Saveth, Voleak (teacher), and the commune focal point for women and children, with the school’s 16 students
Originally, Voleak wanted to be a state primary school teacher but failed the exam. She volunteered to become a community preschool teacher, working with the village chief to establish the school in Chrava . Her original monthly salary was 50,000 Cambodian riels (about US$12), much less than other professions and even other community pre-school teachers’ salary. But Voleak’s desire to work with children motivated her to accept the position. She now earns 300,000 riels per month (US$75), which she is very happy about. But it is not the financial reward that drives her passion for teaching: It is her love of children and commitment to their success. When school is not in session, she often visits parents to make sure they keep their children in school.
“I receive a lot of positive feedback,” she says. “Parents appreciate how my teaching has given their children the confidence to greet others, sing, and tell stories.”
Despite these positive outcomes, Voleak notes the many challenges the school faces: the site for the school is an open space, making it difficult for children to focus on instruction. Children also complain there is no playground at their school.
Also, though 100 per cent of children in the school’s catchment area have enrolled, village-wide the percentage falls to 30 per cent.
“If we could get playgrounds or swings, more children would want to enroll and there would be less drop-outs,” Voleak explains. But the Officers from the Provincial Office of Education who are supposed to inspect the school have not yet visited and therefore no plans have yet been put in motion to install a playground.
Phon Mom, the Commune Committee for Women and Children’s Commune Focal Point for Women and Children, also sees challenges. In her interactions with community members about preschool enrolment, parents have been requesting that a community preschool be established within the primary school compound, which is located in the centre of the village and closer to most villagers. But limited space within the primary school compound makes this solution impossible.
Still, Kou Loab commune is making progress: it will have three community preschools in three of its five villages by the end of 2016. The commune has also begun advocating for home-based programmes (using core mother groups) for children aged 1 to 3, where mothers could get information on early childhood education.
With each community preschool that opens, more and more Cambodian children are accessing essential early childhood education and the life-long benefits it provides.