Thursday, March 1, 2018

Fresh approach to transforming underperforming schools

By Sarah Cowley 

Students enjoy reading textbook at school mobile library.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Bona Khoy

Banteay Meanchey Province, Cambodia, March 2018 – Access to high quality learning is critical for all children’s development and to facilitate this, education specialists are bringing an element of ‘paradise’ into underperforming schools.

Educators in Banteay Meanchey are working with a new school improvement model called Sala Komroo Knong Khet Komroo, or ‘paradise schools’ in Khmer, to ensure institutions are operating at their highest possible capacity so they can provide the best learning opportunities.

The intervention is supported by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and the Capacity Development Partnership Fund (CDPF), implemented to strengthen Cambodia’s education system. The CDPF is a partnership between the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS), the European Union, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agenda (Sida) and UNICEF that began in 2011 in collaboration with non-governmental organizations such as VSO and Care International.

The principles of Sala Komroo are based on the four key principles of: students enjoying learning; teachers loving teaching; school directors happy leading and managing schools; and parents and communities active in supporting the schools.

Sala Komroo aims to build the capacity of educators, including staff employed in district and provincial offices of education, through training and mentoring, and upgrading school facilities so education delivery can be drastically improved.

This is a critical policy intervention as the most recent school evaluation undertaken by education officials in Banteay Meanchey Province revealed 117 underperforming schools in this area.

This assessment uncovered low attendance rates; insufficient teacher training; a lack of staff morale; poor school facilities; environmental concerns; and gaps in the district support structure such as limited resources to improve schools.

The inevitable result is low-performing schools, with low attendance and inadequate educational provision.

Out of the 117 underperforming schools in Banteay Meanchey, 33 were selected for improvement through Sala Komroo intervention.

Launched by Volunteer Services Officer Mr Ramil Sanchez, with the full support of the Provincial Office of Education (PoE) in Banteay Meanchey in 2017, Sala Komroo requires collective input from provincial education officials, school directors and the wider community in order for it to be effective.

Mr Sanchez said: “The initial goal is to ensure that these things [the four key principles] are achieved first. This lays down the foundation for a happy, healthy school that kids want to go to. Then, good governance is key to achieving these things, so it’s important to build up the confidence and commitment of the school directors.”

To meet this goal, training for provincial and district education officials and school directors has been ongoing since the launch in July 2017 This initially involved five months of training, coaching and mentoring sessions to increase knowledge on theories and best practices in the five areas of educational leadership and management; planning for results; monitoring and evaluation; social accountability; and prioritizing budget spending.

The aim is to ensure participants gain better knowledge and learn best practices in improving education service delivery in their workplaces.

To help them achieve this, officials were taken on field trips to visit Wat Bo Primary School in Siem Reap and the New Generation School in Kampong Cham which are model schools operating at a high capacity.

Sala Komroo principles bring school management back down to basics to ensure all educators are trained and have the capacity to improve a school’s administration so a better quality education can be provided.

A basic example is ensuring school grounds are clean so children have a healthier environment to learn in.

3-year-old girl enjoys playing in this lovely playground
thanks to school committee who put their creative works and commitment
in organizing these facilities.
© UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Bona Khoy

Head of the District Office of Education (DoE) Mr Chem Sombo said: “We learnt a lot from the exchange visit [to Wat Bo Primary School in Siem Reap]. For example, reusing plastic and providing proper rubbish disposal.

“Now we encourage food vendors not to sell goods in plastic; [to] provide rubbish bins and offer rubbish disposal. This keeps a clean environment and everyone at the school is much happier.”

One of the major problems in the province was a communication disconnect between schools and education offices, which meant a lack of cohesion, support and tools school directors could employ when facing problems.

To overcome this, a Facebook group chat was created by the PoE and this opened lines of communication and created a dialogue space that didn’t exist before.

“This acts as a support network for the school directors and it is really encouraging and motivating,” said Mr Sanchez.

“Information from training sessions and other information, including photos, can be shared in a group chat, creating a strong network and bond with everyone involved. It has been clear that this has helped build capacity and confidence.

“You can really see the commitment from the school directors in the group chat,” Mr Sanchez added.

This dialogue is also creating motivation as schools share progress and ideas and interested parties are kept updated about meetings and information. This will help the selected 33 underperforming schools to improve within the four-year designated time frame.

Building the capacity and confidence of school directors also enables them to implement better practices at school, provide enhanced facilities and improved learning outcomes.

DoE head Mr Chem Sombo said: “After training and coaching from PoE and VSO, especially about leadership, I feel very inspired and have made a lot of changes in my own office. Communication has improved. Everybody is happy and motivated.”

Regarding Sala Komroo, he said. “Among 17 target schools in this district, all schools have improved. The school environment is very clean and teachers pay much more attention to teaching, especially school directors”.

Samaki Meanchey Primary School in the border town of Poipet is one institution where the tangible results of Sala Komroo are highly visible. The school environment has been improved through the creation of an interactive garden, a mobile library and a playground constructed from recycled materials.

Other improvements include new instruction such as cooking classes and regular teacher-community meetings to discuss how local education delivery can be improved even further.

As a result, attendance rates have improved and the school is now full of happy children eager to learn in an attractive school setting.

To raise awareness about Sala Komroo so its success can be replicated on a larger scale, a Sala Komroo implementation guidebook for education officials is currently being developed.

It is hoped all underperforming schools in Banteay Meanchey will be transformed into model schools by 2021 – with the intention to scale up Sala Komroo countrywide so all Cambodian children in designated underperforming schools can learn in a safe, secure and suitably equipped environment.

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