Now that we’ve had time to let our scholarship program take hold, we’ve sat down to take a look at the impact of our high school scholarships on our students, and the goals of our high school scholarship program as a whole.

In primary school (Grades K-6), our focus is on lighting a fire in our students’ bellies. We want to teach our students that going to school is important, that it’s a safe place, that it’s a place to explore, and that it’s a place that will bring new opportunities and a community of support. In many cases our primary school programs are also about allowing students to redefine their lives without food insecurity, violence, or abuse. Our primary school students receive uniforms and school supplies in addition to daily support in the form of food, supplementary classes, and healthcare in a space that is heavily monitored and supported by PLF.

In secondary school (Grades 7-9), our students are discovering themselves as students and learning how to support themselves. At this stage, our goal is to keep that fire burning. Students are still receiving uniforms and school supplies and are taking supplementary English and IT classes, but the responsibility and sacrifice of taking on a greater workload and a longer commute to cultivates an independent strength in our students that stokes the fire.

In high school (Grades 10-12), our students are commuting even further, sometimes even living away from home, taking on an even greater workload, and with that a greater responsibility. They are still receiving uniforms and school supplies and are taking supplementary English and IT classes. They are also young adults, who are focusing on the road ahead and how they plan to get there amidst financial, familial, and cultural pressures to marry or join the workforce early. In high school, our goal is not only to keep that fire burning, but for it to be strong and bright.

For the past four years we have awarded scholarships to PLF students with strong scores and demonstrated need studying in Grades 10, 11, and 12.  While public high school tuition is free, the majority of teachers offer extra tuition classes in an effort to increase their salary and maximize their time spent teaching. A high school class can range anywhere from 50-70 students, and especially for the crowded classes these extra seminars provide a meaningful learning opportunity. Much to the teacher’s advantage, these classes also contain up to 70% of exam material and worked examples to help students study.

This system of informal fees plays into a structure of public education that is consciously organized to discriminate against the rural poor. Our high school scholarships have afforded our students the opportunity to break that pattern by enrolling in these afternoon classes, the immediate goal being a significant improvement in their marks and a stronger foundation to prepare for the Grade 12 exam.

Now that we’ve had time to let our scholarship program take hold, we’ve sat down to take a look at the impact of our high school scholarships on our students. What we noticed is that the impact on scores in Grades 10 and 11 is positive, but quite small. Our students are still working hard in the classroom and building upon their academic identity, but they are mostly doing just that: chugging along. It is in Grade 12 that the impact of extra classes is significant, and the attitudes of both students and teachers changes focus.

In 2014 the new Minister of Education cracked down on cheating on the Grade 12 national exam for the first time. This step is an extremely positive sign of progress from the government, and it means that students are now passing because they have the ability, not because they have pockets deep enough to influence their scores. It means that hard work pays off, and that you don’t have to be rich to reach your dreams. It also means that the field is more competitive.*

It is this change that influences the impact of scholarships at the Grade 12 level. Students take their studies more seriously, they start their own study groups, they speak up and demand help when they need it, and attendance across the board soars. Teachers become more involved in their lesson planning, they don’t put up with messing around in class, and they focus their classes on material that will prepare students for the exams.

Students and teachers in Cambodia both know how important it is to pass the Grade 12 exam, and to pass it with high marks. While some Government University scholarships are awarded to students based on need, 75% of those scholarships go to the students with the highest scores on the national exam. There are very few legitimate scholarships offered through private universities, and scholarships to government schools mean access to the top universities in Cambodia.

Passing the Grade 12 exam means access to university, and university means not only a higher salary but a better job placement. The difference in starting salary between high school graduates and dropouts is quite small, but the average starting salary for university students is 2.5 times higher than those with only a high school diploma. The jobs that university graduates enter into are also far more likely to be on a career track with room for progression.

From a PLF standpoint, university also means becoming a change-maker. It is not the job of PLF to change the structure of the education system, but rather to empower the disenfranchised to gain a seat at the table where those decisions are made. This process starts with a hearty breakfast in primary school, is propelled by passing the Grade 12 exam, and comes together with a college education and the contacts made from completing that degree.

University graduates are the future professionals of Cambodia, and in a country that is 80% rural, our PLF students will speak for the vast population of the marginalized. They have much to contribute to the rebuilding of their country, and they will bring social justice to the their country in a peaceful manner.

As we look forward to the 2016-2017 academic year, we want to take into account the significant impact of extra tuition classes on our Grade 12 students, and move away from a model that only shows meaningful improvement among one third of our scholarship students. We also want to follow the lead of our students and teachers in identifying our high school goal by shifting our main focus onto the Grade 12 exam. With these factors in mind, we have made the decision to reevaluate our approach to high school scholarships.

Starting from the 2016-2017 academic year, we will award high school scholarships to Grade 12 only. This will allow us to support a greater number of students preparing for the Grade 12 exam, giving a greater number of students the support they need to reach University. It is now clear to us just how important a high score on the Grade 12 exam is in reaching our ultimate goal of developing young leaders, and as an organization we are prideful in our ability to reevaluate and change our approach in order to meet that goal.

In the first year of governmental action the pass rate dropped from over 80% to only 25%, largely in part to nationwide disbelief that the new restrictions would take place. To put things in a more realistic perspective, last year the national pass rate was 55%, and 62% of PLF students passed the exam. This year the national pass rate was 62%, and 76% of PLF students passed.

To hear more about our high school scholarship program, check out our feature on Chey Racchan, who was one of 405 students nationwide to score an “A” on the Grade 12 exam this year.