Friday, July 21, 2017

Community pre-schools offer a pathway to learning for marginalized children

By Mariko Yamaguchi

Students play with their teacher Vim Heak at Chhreak village community pre-school.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Mariko Yamaguchi

Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia, June 2017 – Children living in remote, sparsely populated, rural villages have long been denied their basic right to an education and a chance to better their lives.

Long travelling distances to provincial schools; a lack of support for the creation of schools in areas with a small population base; and a lack of qualified teachers are all reasons children in marginalized communities across Cambodia fall through the education net.

However, one community in Ratanakiri province is turning the tide through the creation of a newly established community pre-school (CPS) that offers children a pathway to a life of learning.

Situated in Chhreak village in Lung Commune in Bar Kaev District in the north-eastern region, the school offers a grounding in early learning, as well as the important opportunity for children to interact and play with other children.

This is critical in developing a child’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional abilities and preparing them for entry into primary school.

In its short lifespan the school has become a major community asset and a testimony from a student with a hearing difficulty who is enjoying his new CPS education is the perfect vote of confidence.

“I enjoy coming to school. I like classes and playing with my friends,” said 13 year-old Sai Nhaek who has had a hearing impairment since birth.

This condition initially deterred Sai from attending classes, but with encouragement from teacher Vim Heak he enrolled in May 2017. Because of the lack of other schools in the village, Sai Nheak has no choice, despite his age, but to attend pre-school, the only form of schooling available in his community.

Sai can hear very little and communication with his teacher and classmates is a major barrier to his progress.

He has to speak very loudly and listen carefully to understand the instruction but with support from his fellow students, Sai is making good progress.

He has managed to catch up with the rest of the class which has made his mother Treng Mut very happy that he will soon be able to read and write.

Initially, the CPS started its operation in October 2016 at one of the community shelters. Two months later, it moved to a new site built solely for educational purposes through community participation and support from a rubber farm owner.

Chhreak village chief Khloung Se said: “It was not a challenge to collect money from the community [to finance the new CPS].

“They showed a strong understanding for children’s education in the community.”

The community has been waiting for government or NGO support to build the school for the last 20 years.

As the nearest school is in a neighbouring village 12km away, local children in Lung Khun Commune were denied any chance of learning prior to the opening of the CPS last year. Commune Committee for Women and Children (CCWC) focal point Nhem Phvim said the small number of primary school-aged children in the commune was an impediment to the establishment of a school.

Children leave the Chhreak village community pre-school shelter.
©UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Mariko Yamaguchi

The local community has also suffered from its geographical remoteness as it is 30km away from the nearest provincial town.

Another hindrance has been a lack of qualified teachers; in the case of Chhreak village there was only one qualified teacher.

In order to become CPS teacher, a selected candidate needs to go to a provincial town to get training.

To assist in overcoming these hurdles, UNICEF mobilized support for Bar Kaev District in 2016.

It has provided training sessions to build the capacity of commune councils so they are better equipped to analyse and identify the needs of women and children and are more able to plan and budget development activities and incorporate them into the Commune Investment Programme (CIP).

Capacity building training has also been provided on CPS functioning and management.
Additionally, Vim Heak, the teacher at Chhreak Village CPS, underwent a 14-day CPS teacher training course held by the Department of Education.

Members of the Lung Khun Commune also received instruction on providing social services with equity at the sub-national level and they are investigating how to increase support for vulnerable families by analysing and prioritizing disability issues in the CIP.

Training activities have also been conducted on inclusive education and disability by the National Centre for Disabled Persons (NCDP) through UNICEF’s support.

CCWC focal point Nhem Phvim said committee members have learned a lot about disability issues and what ‘inclusive’ actually means through training events.

“We have learnt that we can communicate with persons with hearing difficulties by writing and that they can actually do something in society,” she said.

With all this support, the commune has taken a proactive approach to promoting education for children in the community, instead of waiting passively for external support.

However, CCWC member Nhem Phvim said more still needs to be done.

“There are so many children in this commune who do not have education opportunities and we should use this motivation to prioritize CPS in the Commune Investment Plan,” she said.
The CCWC and the commune chief have held several community meetings to boost awareness among villagers about the importance of education and the CPS’ critical role in delivering this to local pre-school children.

This approach has yielded positive results; Lung Khun Commune now has an additional CPS and Chhreak Village CPS has increased its intake to 59 registered students.

Of these students, 24 are pre-school age (three to five) and 35, are primary school aged (six upwards).

In a village with limited learning opportunities, the CPS is becoming a precious learning centre for children resident in a remote, agricultural community.

It is also contributing to the goal of universal pre-school education, including for children with disabilities or those from ethnic minority groups. This early education is a vital component in a child’s growth and development and it has a huge influence on their path to academic and employment success in the years to come.

Early childhood education (ECE) has lifetime impacts. Research shows that learning in pre-school, from 3 to 5 years of age, results in the highest return on investment in education. Children with access to ECE are better prepared for further learning and more likely to enter and complete primary school.

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