Mean Chey District is home to 26 organised urban poor communities comprised mainly of migrants from the provinces. For many parents here, school seems to be an afterthought for their children. But the Ministry of Education, with support from UNICEF, is trying hard to change that, writes Bunly Meas.
As she helps her son put on his school uniform, twenty-six-year-old Sien Chres is excited but surprised to see him returning to kindergarten.
Eight months ago, it was normal for Dy Choeun to stay in class for a few days and then quit his education, as he has done twice over the last three years – a reason he is still in kindergarten at the age of eight.
Dy hardly talks and cannot engage in conversation. His teachers could not engage his attention when he was in class and he normally prefers to play alone.
“I almost gave up on him as I thought he could not learn at school. But his teacher at the current school has new ways to interact with him,” said Mrs Chres.
“Now he can say simple words and loves going back to school each day.”
Mrs Chres and her family live in the urban poor community of Mean Chey District in Phnom Penh. She and her husband collect garbage and sell it for a living. They earn an average 20,000 riels ($5) a day – an amount that barely buys enough food for the family for the day. They live in a small room with a monthly rent of $40.
Mrs Chres has been a refuse scavenger since she was 12 when her mother and her other five siblings left their hometown in Prey Veng Province for Phnom Penh to search for a better livelihood.
Since this migration she has not gone to school and has moved location regularly to earn a living.
Sitting near Mrs Chres in the classroom is Sony Men, principal of the state-run Stung Mean Chey Kindergarten.
She comes to check on Dy’s progress and asks if her support is needed.
She said: “Dy is one of the four students who needs special attention in our school. He is a bit over-aged for our pre-school but I thought he could benefit from our teachers who got training on inclusive education for children with disabilities. I am really glad that he did.”
Seven teachers from Mean Chey district, including Mrs Men, have received instruction since 2015 in inclusive education, with a special focus on children with physical and less severe intellectual disabilities.
The programme is conducted by the Ministry of Education, with support from UNICEF and it has enabled teachers in three Khans (districts) in Phnom Penh to identify disability conditions among students and adapt teaching techniques to fit their needs.
Dany Prum is one of the staff who completed the training. Among her students, she is now teaching two children with special attention needs including Dy. She finds the skill useful in engaging her students.
She said: “Dy did not listen to me but ran around and shortly left for home. I later found [out] he loved listening to stories so I began every class with storytelling.
“After a week, he started responding ‘Yes’ when I asked and enjoyed drawing and playing with other classmates.”
Dy’s improvement has given hope to his mother, though for her, priority is to be able to put food on the table for her children. Her family’s income from scavenging is hardly enough and it likely they move somewhere else to earn more.
Mean Chey District is home to 26 organised urban poor communities comprised mainly of migrants from the provinces. The Phnom Penh Department of Education reported that only 140 out of 1,279 children aged three to five attended pre-schools in Mean Chey District last year.
This figure is in line with UNICEF’s assessment in 2017 that identified 1,140 children and their parents and caregivers in 13 urban poor communities across Phnom Penh. It revealed that only 29 per cent of children aged three to five were enrolled in pre-schools.
Poverty, poor health conditions, a lack of understanding about the importance of education, high informal school fees and low teacher motivation were cited as key barriers to urban poor children accessing an education. These factors also increased the chances of a poor child dropping out of school.
At 5pm in the urban poor community of Dangkor District, 14-year-old Soklyn and her mother are finishing work in a local noodle workshop. They pack noodles full-time and each earns between $6 and $9 a day. Eight months ago, Soklyn was a Grade 6 student. She studied in the morning and worked with her mother in the afternoon to provide income for the family.
Her parents migrated from Kampong Cham city to Phnom Penh when she was just one. They now live in a small room with a seven-year-old cousin and pay a monthly rent of $20. Her father is a street vendor who sells bread and earns around $5 a day.
“My parents were sick some time and we did not have enough money to buy food so I decided to quit school to earn for the family,” said Soklyn.
“I am not sure if I will go back to school. I do not think about the future,” she added.
A UNICEF migration study conducted in 2017 revealed it is difficult for adolescents to continue their education after migrating to live in urban areas because of high education costs. They have a high tendency to enter the labour market and rarely return to school.
While Dy enjoys his kindergarten, his future education remains uncertain as his family do not have the stability to settle in one place. Likewise, Soklyn is now working full-time and her chance to go back to school is minimal.
Recently the Cambodian government rolled out universal social protection under the Social Protection Policy Framework to provide income or in-kind support and programmes, especially for poor children and families so they can access social services such as education, clean water or health care. Other ongoing initiatives, such as the National Scholarship Programme provides financial support to poor students so they can stay in school.
In addition, the Cash Transfer Programme supports pregnant women and children from poor families with small amounts of money and links them to health care and nutrition services.
While these programmes were introduced in Cambodia, their coverage remains limited. For vulnerable children such as Dy and Soklyn, it is important to accelerate and expand the delivery of such support programmes. Increasing the national budget for such schemes is critical so that the Cambodian government can assist more children and families, especially those who are most in need such as migrant families. UNICEF Cambodia