Grade 6 student

Well, it was a risk. But we knew that going in. 

Persuading a whole cohort of 6th graders across our most remote primary schools to repeat the year – even though they had already been ‘passed’ into middle school – was always going to be a tall order. 

As you’ll remember from chapter one and two of this journey, since October we have been working on our Repeaters Project, battling against the government’s policy during Covid school closures to automatically move students up into the next grade, regardless of their ability. These 64 students have not been in a classroom for almost 2 years – in essence, this means they were going from Grade 4 straight to middle school, with no adequate learning preparation under their belts. It’s a ridiculous situation and one that simply sets them up for failure down the line. 

Based on our assessments in October against late Grade 5 / early Grade 6 coursework, only 21% got a passing score. From experience, we know this ‘scraping by’ means the students will struggle greatly to go the whole distance of the next grade. Their learning tanks simply aren’t full enough.

Prey Kuol student in Math class 2022

We quickly rolled out extra afternoon classes at all three locations, bolstered by a filling lunch to ensure full attendance, aimed at getting more students up to the pass mark by the end of the year.

Grade 6 extra class at Koh Ker
PLF students eating lunch

Grade 6 extra class and lunch at Koh Ker

It was our best shot but would it be enough? Covering two years of school material in two months is an epic – and fairly unrealistic – challenge. We knew we had to simultaneously manage outcome expectations, and started to have the difficult conversations required in our communities, taking a hard stand and begging the students and their families to prepare for full repetition of Grade 6. This is no small task. Most of these parents never went to school themselves, and the idea of repeating had never been done before. But we insisted that, because Grade 6 is a foundation year, a student simply needs to have that solid base to build upon. The government might have ‘passed’ them, and they were free to go if they chose, but we knew from experience that they were not ready.

Grade 6 Community Meeting at Koh Ker

Community meeting at Koh Ker

Our “hard stand” therefore was that if they disregarded our advice and carried on to Grade 7, they would do that without us. No seat on the truck, no extra classes at the Learning Center at Srayang, no lunch. If any of them were still standing by Grade 8 and could pass the placement test, we’d take them back in. It sounds brutal, but it’s part of a process for the community to see that, while they are totally in control of their choices, they must also fully understand and accept the consequences. 

All the communities where we work know that we always stand by our decisions, and we do what we say we will do; that we are never in the business of spending resources and effort so that students can fail; but that we’ll move heaven and earth to help them succeed. 

This was our proposition for the Repeaters Project, and as we prepared the students for a placement exam in December – which in all likelihood would prove that many of them were still not ready – we hoped that we had made a really convincing argument for repeating.  

Grade 6 exam at Romchek 2022

Grade 6 exam at Romchek

The exam turned up some surprisingly good news, with another small clutch of students earning their seat on the bus. So with 17 out of the original 64 now legitimately going on to Grade 7, we expected to have the remaining 47 in repeaters class for another year. 

Or so we thought…

Instead, small explosions of disappointment were detonated throughout the opening day enrolments in January. Sadly, 12 under-prepared students went ahead and enrolled in Grade 7, knowing full well they had to do it on their own, without our support. Less than a month into the new school year, and most of them are already having absentee problems. As predicted, they can’t always find a way to even get there – which is of course why we have our trucks. It’s disheartening to say, but we’ll be absolutely floored if any of those 12 make it to Grade 8. There is still the small hope that they’ll realize they can’t do it under their own steam and re-join the repeaters class in the next month or so – they’ll of course be very welcome to return, but again we’ll be surprised if they do.

Another 13 students threw up their hands and simply just dropped out. At Grade 6. We have not seen that in a full decade. Some other students have moved away, resulting in losing contact. This is not uncommon, especially for families in the forest up near the border, who move around looking for work, often hopping across into Thailand. The devastation of Covid is of course the larger backdrop to these cases, as families already struggling to stay afloat prioritize accessing whatever income they can over keeping their kid in school, especially if they see that kid struggling to keep up. 

So as the enrollment dust settles, how does our Repeaters Project look now? We realize we have only around a third of the original cohort who are earnest about pausing for a year before entering Grade 7. 

That’s a mere smattering, out of the original 64, who will actually repeat. 

Grade 6 Repeaters Class teacher 2022
Grade 6 Repeaters Class at Romchek 2022

Grade 6 Repeaters class at Romchek

After short, sharp hyperventilation and a calmer moment of reflection, we’re quickly regrouping around PLAN B – in the firm belief that there is always some good to come out of even the harshest disappointments.

PLAN B will see us re-distributing some of the money we would have invested in the larger Repeaters Project and turning our attention instead to those who did move to middle school legitimately. Since they passed our exam by a very narrow margin, we already know that they will need remedial classes in Khmer and Math for the whole of Grade 7. 

Placement tests at Srayang
Placement tests at Srayang Learning Center

Additionally, after placement testing our Grade 8 students, we see that a good number of them will also need remedial assistance, as they have similarly taken a massive hit over the last two years with such little online coursework available to them. 

So, as the final picture comes into focus, we now know that we have a total of 33 students in Grade 7 and 8 who need Remedial Khmer and 39 students for Remedial Math, who are going to greatly benefit from these re-distributed funds. We’ve already hired two middle school teachers from their public school to come to Srayang Center and teach in the afternoons throughout the coming year. And because these teachers also know Grade 9 and beyond, they will really see what areas the students are lacking in, and specifically fill those gaps to get them on the right track for secondary school. 

Remedial Khmer class at Srayang Learning Center

Remedial Khmer class at Srayang Learning Center

We’ve also decided to delay our Tech offerings, and drop English for this year, as after two years of zero speaking practice, the students would effectively start from scratch again. They have time to pick up IT skills and English later – these are things that can wait. Almost everything is being moved out of the way to get these students hyper-focussed on the core subjects they need to keep them on track. 

It was not the outcome we thought we were working towards, but when Covid gives us lemons (again and again), we know it’s time to execute another PLF pivot – and do all in our power to keep the students in school, where they belong.

Preah Vihear primary schools and Srayang Learning Center are projects of PLF Canada, executed by PLF Cambodia.

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