Ambitious Effort to Place Kids in School Hits Target Early

More than 57,000 school-aged children have been returned to the classroom by a project targeting the country’s estimated 300,000 children who are not attending school full-time, those involved in the effort said.

The Cambodian Consortium for Out of School Children said last week that it had reached its initial goal ahead of schedule, and that 2,000 more children were also expected to be enrolled before the project hits its three-year mark in November.

Komsat Pisey, 13, is one of the children helped by the program. In 2014, she dropped out of school when her family moved from Battambang to Poipet hoping to make more money. They couldn’t afford the informal fees for her to attend state school, so she missed a year helping with household chores before she was identified by the consortium and placed back in a classroom, she said.

“I can go to school. I feel happy playing with friends,” the sixth grader said on Friday.

Since the program’s intervention, she has not only been able to study the state curriculum, but has also begun English and computer courses.

“They gave me school supplies and medicine” that her family could not afford, she added. “My father thinks that the organization is a good place.”

The consortium began in 2014 with 17 NGOs—now more than 20—two help children overlooked by the country’s education system. The target demographic includes those who have never attended school, late starters, dropouts and physically- or mentally-handicapped children.

As part of its efforts, the project has created accelerated curriculums for students entering school late, built schools in areas that previously lacked them and provided teacher training so that children with handicaps could be educated in state schools, said Leam Socheat, the program’s director from international NGO Aide et Action.

“Our direct beneficiary is our schools, but in fact I think there are around half a million children that benefit directly or indirectly,” he said.

The project revealed that the situation of Cambodian children failing to attend school was worse than what was previously believed, representatives of the consortium said. Unicef had estimated that 250,000 children were not attending school full-time, but a survey taken alongside the project put the number at 300,000.

Vorn Samphors, country director for Aide et Action, which spearheaded the project, said the consortium now aimed to “scale up nationwide.”

In the next three-year phase, about 40 NGOs are set to enroll 100,000 more children across the country, Mr. Samphors said, emphasizing that retaining children in school was a critical goal. The project’s budget was $19.3 million from 2014 to this year, and is expected to total $26 million in the next phase, he said. Education Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.

Miguel Chanco, lead analyst in the Asean region for the Economist Intelligence Unit, lauded the effort, suggesting it could help Cambodia play catch-up with its neighbors.

“I can only see this as a positive thing for Cambodia as the initiative helps to ensure that these young people have an opportunity—and in some cases, a second chance—to become more productive members of society,” he said in an email. “After all, Cambodia is at a demographic disadvantage to its ASEAN neighbors next door, such as Myanmar and Indonesia, and to its much larger peers further east; the Philippines and Indonesia.”

“On a separate note; while I applaud the success so far of this initiative, the fact that it even exists speaks poorly about the state of Cambodia’s public education system, while highlighting the absence of any real safety nets for disadvantaged groups,” Mr. Chanco added.

(Additional reporting by Chhorn Phearun)

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