Imagine you are a 5th grader in a remote village just mastering the incredibly complicated Khmer alphabet.
Now imagine something called a ‘pandemic’ happens – what even is THAT?! – and your school closes. You must stay at home and virtually miss two full school years, which will include your final year of primary school. There is no online learning available to you. You are only allowed to go to school to pick up a food parcel every two weeks, and you can check out books to read. You are also given worksheets but, with no teacher assistance and all the things you learned slipping from your memory, you can’t figure out how to complete them.
Then after almost two years have so slowly inched by, all of a sudden everyone says covid is over and the pandemic is finished! Schools are reopening and now you’re expected to enrol in secondary school Grade 7 … in January! Your parents seem excited and eager for you to move up, but armed only with your very hazy 5th grade knowledge, how is that going to work?
What are the chances you’ll make it through this new year of ‘big’ school and be able to pass on up through to the next grades?
This is the situation currently facing all 64 of the 6th graders in our three Preah Vihear locations right now. And their concern is borne out by steadily declining literacy rates for rural primary school students, who suffered the most through the covid school closures as there was no government curriculum provided. In 2020, we watched helplessly as literacy rates plummeted among this cohort who was just achieving literacy when schools closed, with a drop of 18% for girls and 23% for boys.
Literacy rates in rural Cambodian primary schools 2019 – 2020 (Source: PLF data)
And this was after one year of school closures; we just knew that after a second, that downward trend will only have continued.
At the end of each school grade during covid, government policy has been to automatically pass students along regardless of academic learning – so as not to have to admit or answer for their failure to prepare students for the exam.
For primary students only attending school four out of the last 20 months, it is no wonder they are ill-equipped to confidently move up into Grade 7. Grade 6 is the foundation year for secondary school, and students should have a solid understanding of maths and Khmer language at this stage. Right now, that foundation is incredibly shaky, and yet they are expected to graduate primary school and move on up – an approach that will be detrimental to their longer-term learning, and most likely lead to drop out within the near future.
But it’s not just the government who are in a hurry to ‘move on’ from this whole covid debacle; it is often reflected in the parents’ attitude too, albeit for different reasons.
This cohort of 6th graders is the first since we expanded our reach at Srayang. Our learning centre there, across the road from the public school, started out as a dorm for the high-flyers from the villages who couldn’t do the school commute. When the school expanded beyond Grade 9, we expanded accordingly and turned the dorm into a learning centre, bought trucks to bus kids from those most remote locations, and greatly opened up the possibility of a secondary education to students who were until then completely disenfranchised from this opportunity.
Not many village kids ever get to complete Grade 6, so going into Grade 7 is such a big thing for these students and their families. The parents are so excited and proud that their kids now have this opportunity – which makes our job to convince them to repeat Grade 6 even more difficult. It’s never been done before, and represents a significant disappointment for the families right now. Our challenge is to get the community to understand why repeating is so important; to convince them that their kids WILL go to Grade 7, but not just yet.
To relay this message, Ponheary took to the road and held community parent and student meetings, repeating her mantra of ‘step by step’, outlining a process that sometimes even means taking a step backwards.
Joining her, Socheat Koun, field director of Romchek, Prey Kuol and Koh Ker Primary Schools, discussed that downward literacy trend from 2019 to 2020 to show how significant the drop was after just one year of closures. He explained why we’re proposing the repeaters approach, with a required score of 70% in both Khmer and maths each, as this was the pre Covid standard.
Careful not to demoralise the students, we still had to show the learning gap that occurs when, through no fault of their own, some of those crucial steps are missed. We needed to show them, in effect, how much they don’t know. And we wanted to present a plan to enable them to take control of their learning journey, and beat these unfair effects of covid.
So what is the plan? Since the end of October, we’ve hired extra 6th Grade teachers at each of the three village locations for their afternoon sessions to begin the catch-up process. Students are given a hearty lunch before lessons begin.
Then, on December 18th, they will be given the chance to sit a Grade 6 exam again at Srayang.
We cannot make them repeat the year, and since the government has already passed them, they have every right to move to Grade 7. And if they are really determined to move on, we cannot stop them. But we are strongly advising against it – as it would be a tough year ahead to get through Grade 7 on a near-empty tank of learning. If they choose to go, they go by themselves, as it is not a path that we can support.
But given that nobody passed in October, and with what they’ve learned in the two months since unlikely to be enough to fully catch-up, we honestly do not expect that many, or even any, will pass.
And that’s ok, because we’re here and fully ready to support them as they repeat. We’ve budgeted for another year of extra teachers, classes and lunches, to take every one of these 64 students confidently, step by step, back through Grade 6. It’s a bold move, and it shows we care about the quality and strength of their education.
So this is our proposal and promise to the students and their parents: ONE STEP BACKWARDS now … to make a SURER STEP FORWARDS next year, and into the years to come.
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