Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Building demand for community preschools among vulnerable families

By Sovadhanak Hun

Raising awareness on the value of early childhood education
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sovadhanak Hun

“Please send your three- to five-year-old children and grandchildren to preschool!” La Phat, the focal point for women and children in Bour commune, enthusiastically told the group of parents and grandparents seated in the classroom. About 20 caregivers had gathered at the Anlong Krouch Primary School to learn about the importance of preschool, many accompanied by their children or grandchildren. They listened closely to La’s words, not only for themselves but also for neighbours and family members who could not attend that day as they were busy working in the nearby cassava fields.

“Education for children of this age is a very important building block for further education in primary, lower secondary and high school,” La continued. ”Children who go to preschool are more likely to perform well in upper levels of school and less likely to drop out.”

La convenes sessions like this every quarter, particularly during enrolment campaigns, and has seen interest in and understanding of the value of preschools in this poor, remote region of Cambodia improve. As Bour’s focal point for women and children, she also leads discussions on other important topics for her community’s well-being: maternal health and child care, civil registration, water sanitation and hygiene, child protection, violence against women, and children and natural disasters.

So far, 26 children (including 12 girls) have enrolled in the 2015/16 school year, which began on 2 November.

Bour is a remote commune in Battambang Province comprised of eight villages about 80 kilometres from the provincial capital. As a newly deforested area, the commune has fertile soil good for cultivating cassava, luring many in search of work. The commune’s new residents are among the country’s poorest and, due to the migratory nature of their work, face a host of issues: children unable to consistently attend school, inadequate access to health care and vaccinations, and low rates of birth registration, to name a few.

In light of this myriad of challenges, UNICEF Cambodia’s Seth Koma programme has been working in Bour since 2011, leveraging its expertise to improve the Commune Council’s awareness and support of the most in need. Over 200 families have benefitted from activities that include supporting women during delivery at health facilities; providing essential materials (uniforms, books, supplies) so children can attend school; supplying food; and promoting community preschools. Vulnerable families are identified by the commune using a social service mapping tool, which is then used to adjust the commune budget to meet residents’ needs and advocate for appropriate commune, line department and NGO support.

The commune focal point for women and children (first from left),
commune preschool educator (second from left) with
parents/grandparents in an enrolment campaign
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sovadhanak Hun

When UNICEF began working with the communities, it supported the three existing commune preschools. Now, there are eight community preschools, of which five are covered by the commune fund. According to La Phat, “The ability to run these preschools is strongly based on our experience with UNICEF’s social service support.”

In addition to funding the majority of preschools, commune assistance has included teaching and learning materials and arranging quarterly meetings for preschool educators to exchange experiences.

With UNICEF support, the Commune Committee for Women and Children, which aims to include women’s and children’s voices in local government, has gained knowledge and management skills of commune preschools. It is now better equipped to identify locations in need of schools, recruit appropriate educators and children, monitor and evaluate the schools, and raise awareness of preschools’ importance.
“Before 2011, the commune earmarked few funds for social services. Now, we budget for this important assistance, including the UNICEF social service envelope, and we are managing well. We will continue to do so in the future on our own,” La Phat explains.

Phat Phuong and her grandson
© UNICEF Cambodia/2015/Sovadhanak Hun
Phat Phuong’s four-year-old grandson, Neang Reaksa, has been in preschool since last year. “He now knows everything around him, such as the sky, sun, moon, stars, chicken, ducks, cows and buffaloes. He can count and knows some letters. He can even sing and dance beautifully.”

Mother Sovann Sivuon echoed Phat’s sentiments. She too has observed differences in her four-year-old daughter after a year in preschool. “My daughter is not afraid of school anymore,” she says. “She performs better than other children who are not in preschool in the ways she associates with other children and adults. She knows how to be polite and to keep herself clean.”

As demand among villagers for preschool increases, the commune is considering establishing another three facilities for the 2016/17 school year, especially in remote locations.

In Bour, this means that more and more of their children will partake in the important preschool experience, paving the way toward a brighter academic future.

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