Many of the children who Ruom Phearum works with as a speech therapist in Siem Reap province lack the ability to talk, eat or interact with other children when she first meets them.
Even after overcoming their disabilities, Ms. Phearum said, many of the children still lack the support from teachers and family members to embolden them to enter a classroom setting.
“The reasons that students can’t attend school is because they have no confidence in themselves, or the family and community to support or encourage them to stand up for themselves,” she said.
“And also, the teachers do not understand how to teach them or have the skills to propel them.”
Through her work with the disability focused NGO Cabdico, however, Ms. Phearum has helped 17 children successfully enroll in primary schools, working with parents and teachers to assist in the transition.
In an effort to diminish the population of children without formal education—such as those that Ms. Phearum counsels—a group of 21 NGOs banded together last year to form the Cambodian Consortium for Out of School Children (CCOSC).
At a two-day conference organized by the consortium this week, the groups assessed their progress and discussed their plans for the future.
According to a report released on Wednesday, the NGOs successfully helped 14,583 children enroll in primary schools during the first year of a three-year project. Another 42,670 children have been identified by the group as requiring assistance to enter the school system.
“At the onset there was a conscious decision to develop the project through five components that relate to OSC [out-of-school children]: Children from Poor and Remote communities, those from Ethnic Minorities, those who are Over Age, those who live on the Streets and those who have Disabilities,” the report says.
In some cases, it says, enrolling and retaining students is as simple as providing course materials, or bicycles to get to school. For ethnic minority groups, teaching students in their first language is fundamental to keeping them in the classroom. And for over-age students, who have fallen behind their peers, an accelerated curriculum is required to help them catch up.
In other words, getting students to go to school and stay there requires a wide range of assistance, according to Vorn Samphors, country program director for Aide et Action, the NGO spearheading the initiative.
“The teacher, the school facility, the curriculum and other [things] are not yet adapted to their special needs. We are working to address that,” Mr. Samphors said at this week’s conference.
According to Mr. Samphors, the cost of enrolling an out-of-school student varies, with a disabled child costing nearly $200 annually and an over-aged child costing just $100 for three years. The average cost to enroll and retain one child for one year, he said, is $50.
But the investment required to enroll individual students has wide-ranging and long-term benefits, Mr. Samphors said.
“That changes the whole lifecycle of their children, not only one time, but through one person. We only invest in one person, but through them, we will change the whole process,” he said.
Along with enrolling students, the consortium engages government officials, school administrators, teachers and families in order to ensure that students are receiving a quality education, also conducting research and carrying out advocacy campaigns.
An electronic record is being kept to allow the involved NGOs and the Education Ministry to track the progress and retention of students involved in the project.
The consortium has a $19.3 million budget—$9.56 million from the international NGO Educate a Child and matching contributions from other participating groups.
According to Tiv Tithvanna, Aide et Action’s head of finance, $4.4 million of the budget was spent in the first year, with the consortium achieving just 57 percent of its enrollment goal for that period.
Ms. Tithvanna attributed the missed target to the fact that some of the NGOs got a slow start in working with the consortium, but said she was confident that the project would meet its ultimate goal of enrolling more than 57,000 students over three years.
A report released in August by Educate a Child in cooperation with Unesco and the U.S.-based research institute Results for Development attempted to determine the cost of children not being in school by calculating the difference between what a Cambodian can earn in the job market with and without a primary education.
The report found that the nationwide annual loss for current out-of-school children upon entering adulthood would be $68 million in income, or approximately three times the amount the Cambodian government contributes to education annually.
By factoring in less tangible factors such as health, social and political benefits, the study found that the economic loss increased fivefold, to about $282 million annually.
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)