Cambodia: Covid-Free but education still a distant aspiration for many

Cambodia’s education sector has faced and still faces significant challenges as a result of the pandemic. Local actors have emerged as crucial players in the recovery efforts with support from outside volunteers.

On May 24th, Cambodia was declared a “covid-zero” country, which means that on that same day, the health authorities reported zero new cases of COVID-19. The news is a success for a country still recovering from two years of profound havoc.

Among the sectors that suffered side effects, education tops the ranking, especially education in rural areas where 79% of the population currently live. Even though the pandemic exposed the lack of a proper nationwide educational system, the issue of unequal education is longstanding.

In a speech made at the graduation of the Cambodian University for Specialties in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen, admitted that many of the students sitting there “might have grown up going to schools with leaks in their rooftops, but still should not underestimate the quality of education in Cambodia”. While it is true that the government is focusing on improving the quality of education, educational provisions within rural areas remain in need of substantial progress.

Among this shortage of provisions, one of the biggest problems is a lack of learning institutions in the early stages of childhood (i.e., preschool). The situation arises from a deficiency of adequately qualified educators and the absence of suitable infrastructure. Upon reaching primary level, children experience challenges to meet fundamental prerequisites, such as reading and writing. According to UNICEF, a low 27% of 3 to 5-year-old’s are on track with literacy and numeracy, and by the time they reach 17, 55% of them have dropped out of school altogether.

To overcome these shortages, locals in these rural areas are taking matters into their own hands and building spaces to provide services the government fails to meet. These community schools cover preschool as well as English learning. The latter is crucial since Cambodia and especially Siem Reap, Cambodia’s second largest city, highly depends on tourism. So, communicating in English can make the difference between success and failure for many students looking to break the pattern of poverty that their families have been immersed in since the military rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Established in 2014, ECC School is run by Savon, her husband Savouth, and their children in the village of Po, a small community outside the city. Almost ten years ago, they opened their property to build this educational institution. Ensuring proper operation of the school poses considerable challenges. Although ECC School greatly contributes to addressing the deficiencies of the education system, the government has not been as helpful. It approved the initiative when the school was first built in 2014 but does not provide tangible aid to support its operations. The school fully relies on voluntary cooperation from outside actors.

Kids of the Pagoda class. Image by Lauren Jones

Today, the school welcomes around thirty students between the ages of 5 to 18 to learn English every weekday and there is a regular flow of volunteers coming in and out. Still, it is unable to operate at full capacity.

During the covid years, the government closed its borders to foreigners and shut down all educational institutions. These past three years ECC has shown the resilience and determination of Cambodian people and their commitment to a better education for every child. Even though the reliance on volunteers stopped due to the inability to travel to the country, Savon stepped up to the challenge and began to teach those children who were still able to join for some classes by herself. “People in Cambodia were scared. Well, as in every country I guess,” she said to explain the low engagement of children during the first years of the pandemic.

This fear is now gone, especially after the announcement of the covid-zero status. Nonetheless, the ravages of the pandemic continue to reverberate in education.

These community-driven initiatives play a crucial role in providing essential educational services and addressing long-standing deficiencies. However, none of this would be required if the government would step up and carry out its responsibility to provide accessibility to quality education for all children in Cambodia.

Volunteers and kids in the afternoon class in ECC School. Image by Karen Austin

If you’d like to participate as a volunteer, you can contact ECC through Worldpackers and Workaway

Clara Santos