Friday, April 17, 2015

Accelerated learning for a second chance to education

By Anna Nordenrot

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Anna Nordenrot
14-year-old Chan Sambath (second row, left) and her classmates during class in Tuol Skor School in Thnal Dach village, Kampong Speu province. The textbooks used are part of the Accelerated Learning Programme and provided by UNICEF. 

KAMPONG SPEU, Cambodia, 17 April 2015 – On a secluded dirt road, surrounded by mountains and rice fields, lies Tuol Skor School in Thnal Dach Village, Preah Khe Commune. It is the dry season and wherever you go, so does the dust. You can almost taste it in the air. The schoolyard is empty, all the students are in class. If it were not for the sound of children loudly repeating after their teachers, as though they were competing to see who can speak the loudest, one would think there is not much happening here.

The students are all paying close attention to the teachers and following their instructions; nothing seems out of the ordinary. But Tuol Skor School is, in fact, extraordinary: since 2008, it has offered overage students who have dropped out of school, or started late, a chance to catch up with their peers through the Accelerated Learning Programme. Designed to help overage students complete two years of education in just one year, this programme is developed by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports and assisted by UNICEF to ensure that vulnerable children can receive quality education.

Seasonal migration and poverty push children out of school

Meet 14-year-old Chan Sambath. She lives with her mother and two younger siblings in a small house in the village of Toam Marak, Kak Commune, in Kampong Speu province. Traditionally built on high poles to protect it from flooding during the rainy season, her house consists of only one room with a small space for cooking. There is no toilet nor soap; water is collected from the community well and is drunk without boiling.

This is a poor community and, as it happened for many other families, poverty pushed Sambath out of school. “Because we have no money, my parents migrated close to the border of Thailand to work for a company that produces cassava and I had no choice but to go with them and leave school. I was there for two years before my mother sent me back home to live with my uncle, who helped me get back to school,” she explains.

Now Sambath is back with her mother but life is not easy for them. Her mother, Touch Sambo, says, “I don’t know how to support my children. My husband passed away when my youngest daughter was only 9 days old. I have remarried but my new husband left me because I could not find a job. Now my living condition depends on my rice field but, with the ongoing drought, it is hard. Therefore I am very happy and thankful for the teachers who are helping Sambath receive an education again so that she can strive higher in life.”

© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Anna Nordenrot
14-year-old Chan Sambath at home in Toam Marak village, Kampong Speu province, with her mother, 6-year-old brother and 7-month-old sister.

Sambath went back to school this year and is currently in Grade 3 of the Accelerated Learning Programme, which combines Grade 3 and 4. Next year she can move straight to Grade 5 (normally reached at 10 years of age). Even though she is 14 years old, she has only attended school for three years in total and she is thankful that her uncle has helped her find this school. “I am very happy that now I am able to come here and study. I am excited to learn and, if possible, I want to continue to study all the way to Grade 12 and become a teacher myself.”

On the challenges related to seasonal migration, she explains, “When I left school to go with my parents I did not expect to have the chance to study again. I was already planning my life in a different way, thinking that I could join my friends who went to work in a sugar cane factory in Kampong Speu province”.

Sambath says her friends have already been out of school for a long time: for this reason they are now overage and do not want to go back. “Like them, I was afraid to go back because I felt that there was no possibility for me to catch up; I was afraid that everyone my age would have much more knowledge than me,” she explains. When asked how she feels now, she smiles and says that the feeling of shame is gone. The support she has been receiving in school makes her feel much better.

For the last seven years, UNICEF has supported Tuol Skor School and the Accelerated Learning Programme by providing teacher training on how to combine two years of syllabus into one year of teaching, as well as textbooks developed specifically for Accelerated Learning. Due to seasonal migration, many children in this area are at risk of dropping out of school. Because of the increased opportunity cost of going back to school when they are overage, a lot of children, like Sambath’s friends, choose to work instead. As explained by Sambath, there is also stigma associated with being older than your classmates: by combining two years in one the Accelerated Learning Programme helps bridge the age gap.

School is going well for Sambath. Her teacher, Mrs Long Thary, says that now she is one of the best students in class: when she first came to school, she could hardly read but now she has made great progress. When commenting on the Accelerated Learning Programme, Mrs Thary says, “It is a very interesting methodology, which challenges both teachers and students: we need to teach more, and they need to learn more, in a shorter time frame. Whenever students feel like they are behind, we always try to motivate them. I think it would be very useful to expand this programme.”

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