Exploring vulnerable school communities in Cambodia

Floating schools, Buddhist monastic schools, and Islamic schools

UNICEF Cambodia
Apr 5, 2019 · 6 min read
Children row home from Cholsa primary school in Pursat Province. © UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Meredith Lunsford

During the summer of 2018, three researchers working with UNICEF Cambodia’s education team, Meredith Lunsford, Safa Shahkhalili, and Solyda Say, were tasked with researching three minority education communities. Namely Buddhist monastic schools, Islamic schools, and floating schools. Each school type has its own history, educational practices, and unique challenges.

The aim of this research was to generate baseline knowledge and improve UNICEF’s understanding of the educational experiences that transpire in these school communities.

In doing so, the researchers aimed to identify ways in which the overall quality and inclusiveness of education within these schools could be improved.

This research process generated a great deal of reflection among the researchers.

As such the researchers share their observations and realizations below.

Students studying at Roka Popram School, Kampong Cham Province © UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Solyda Say

Diversity within Schools
Safa Shahkalili’s Personal Reflection

Throughout the course of the research, it became clear that each school type operates within a spectrum of diverse conditions. Just because two schools are both Buddhist, Islamic, or floating does not mean that they share the same school infrastructure, school management styles, teacher practices, or overall educational experiences.

On one end of the spectrum, there are schools with relatively substantial resources which have more capacity to provide quality and inclusive education and offer their students more consistent and successful educational experiences. Generally, these schools are closer to urban areas and, in the case of floating schools, closer to the mainland. They are located in communities that have a relatively high socio-economic status or have received more external funding and support in recent years.

On the other end of the spectrum are severely underfunded and understaffed schools that are unable to offer every primary-level grade and have a student population that must balance school and work responsibilities. The wide-ranging school experiences highlight the unique social conditions that exist in Cambodia, as well as the importance of having a contextual understanding of the broader historical, economic, political, geographic and social factors that shape the community in which a school is located.

Every school is embedded within a community and the individual conditions of both the school and the community influence one another in ways that impact the educational experiences of students.

This diversity also speaks to the gap that can exist between policy and implementation.

While appropriate school-level quality and social inclusion policies might exist, implementing them equally across schools in different communities is a challenge that must be recognized and overcome.

Such diversity within school types can be used as an opportunity to learn that there can be no one size fits all solution to the different challenges that different school communities face. It is necessary to share best practices amongst schools within the same system in order to learn from one another’s experiences and brainstorm pathways for improved quality and social inclusion.

While Islamic schools, Buddhist monastic schools, and floating schools do have differences, they also have commonalities. They can benefit from sharing experiences and learning from one another’s operations and strategies for achieving educational success.

Students of Ou Akol floating primary school, Pursat Province © UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Theavy Leng

Champions in School Leadership
Meredith Lunsford’s Personal Reflection

The idea of a champion emerged during school visits, where schools were committed to providing education, despite the enormous challenges confronting them. From the Buddhist Monastic Primary Cluster School at Wat Thmey, Samdach Chungath Buddhist Secondary and High School to Roka Popram Primary School, each school leader had clearly made a definitive choice in initially choosing to accept a position at their particular school and a clear decision to remain at the school.

Despite the obstacles, of which there are many, each school leader demonstrated a genuine sympathy, and in some cases empathy, toward the plight of children at their respective schools. Additionally, each demonstrated an admirable commitment to provide the best education possible within their means.

The Wat Hanchey Buddhist Primary school director shared how he lobbied the local tour guide to collect tourist donations to fund a year’s worth of internet for their school.

Another school director, from Samdach Chungath Buddhist Secondary and High School, facilitated a community fundraiser for the construction of a new building in the school compound.

The school director at Da Lol I-San Islamic School located in Battambang Province near the Thai border also shared the sacrifices made to provide an education to the 20 students enrolled in the school. From Kampong Cham, and the town where his wife still lives, his home is nearly 500 kilometers by car. Not only does his position as school director mean he works and resides far from his family, the school director also lives in a hammock in the two room school house with walls fashioned from tarps and concrete flooring. The remoteness of the school means that there is no running water, electricity or families living in the direct vicinity. However, the school is the most central point serving a large surrounding community.

In another example of a champion, the school director at Anlong Reang primary school, a floating school, offered his personal home on the mainland as a place to live for one student that expressed interest in attending lower secondary school. Because floating school students rarely transition from primary to secondary school, this school director wanted to alleviate at least one of the barriers for this student. Sadly, this student dropped out after grade seven due to limited family financial resources and a duty to contribute economically to the household.

While effective school management is a necessary ingredient to providing a quality education, a committed champion driving progress forward is equally imperative. Upon personal reflection, it became clear that supporting individuals with this amount of commitment and willingness to extend far beyond their job description to provide children with an education is important. Not only do we as development professionals have a responsibility to positively influence policy, but we also have a responsibility to uplift and support the champions on the “front lines”.

Ultimately, these are the individuals whose daily hard work is shaping future generations.

Students learning Pali at Hanchey Buddhist Primary School, Kampong Cham province © UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Meredith Lunsford

Resilience and Perseverance
Solyda Say’s Personal Reflection

Despite facing continuous challenges ranging from poor living conditions, to discrimination and climate change, each of the school directors, students and teachers interviewed demonstrated incredible resilience. Perseverance and optimism seem to enable these individuals to thrive in their challenging living environments.

A second-year student at Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University in Battambang province was forced to drop-out when his parents could no longer financially support his studies. With very little education, he was forced into skilled labor as a construction worker. He told the researchers that every day he looked at his dirty work clothes and reflected on how he wanted a better life for himself, his family and society as a whole. Thus, he worked part-time to put himself through high school and is now in university.

School directors and teachers at the floating schools are all from the mainland. Because a lot of teachers do not know how to swim, they are literally risking their lives daily by teaching in floating schools.

Nevertheless, those teachers are committed to their profession and try their best to teach their pupils. Their commitments and strength are inspiring.

One of the floating schools that the team visited experienced a recent tragic death of one student due to an accident on her way to school. Despite the shock and trauma generated by this, parents continue to send their children to school and the school directors and teachers are doubling-down on their commitment to ensuring student safety by acquiring boats for transportation to and from school and/or using their own boats to collect students and more safely transport them to school.

These are a few of the many life stories filled with perseverance that were shared with the research team during field visits.

Students studying at Da Lol I-San Islamic School, Battambang Province © UNICEF Cambodia/2018/Meredith Lunsford

UNICEF Cambodia

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UNICEF works to protect and uphold the rights of all children in Cambodia

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