BLOG: Education is the smartest route out of poverty BLOG: Education is the smartest route out of poverty

By Ed Shuttleworth -

Why an investment in teaching quality can provide a route out of poverty for Cambodia's next generation, and how our work fits into a wider effort to reform the country's education system.

Cambodia has come a long way since the unimaginable devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, in which almost a quarter of the entire population died. Today 50% of the population is under 24 years of age and 80% live in rural areas, still largely dependent on subsistence farming.  An investment in education provides local Cambodian families with a sense of hope that their children will have an opportunity to achieve levels of prosperity of which they dared not even dream.

However, a 2015 publication from The World Bank, ‘Educating the Next Generation - Improving Teacher Quality in Cambodia’, shows that while progress is being made in improving education standards, there is still a long way to go. Net enrolment rates have risen for primary education from 83.8 percent in 1992 to 96.4 percent in 2012, and net secondary enrolments from 16.6 percent in 2000 to 35.1 percent in 2012. But this means that even today some 65% of children do not enrol in grade 7.  Across the whole population, the average number of years schooling that people have had is 4.4 years.

"For Cambodia, the next step for reforming the education system is to improve the quality of student learning."

The 2010 Early Grade Reading Assessment of 24,000 students in grades 1–6 found that 33 percent of Cambodian children could not read and that nearly half (47 percent) of literate children could not comprehend what they had read.  

Education quality, rather than quantity, most accurately predicts economic growth.  Increasing average education levels contributes to faster gross domestic product (GDP) growth only if schooling increases student learning: and the more learning, the faster the growth (Hanushek and Woessmann 2008). For Cambodia therefore, the next step for reforming the education system is to improve the quality of student learning.

The World Bank identifies that a high-quality teaching workforce—the bedrock of all high-performing education systems—is the single most important factor in improving student learning. Teachers, the largest element of Cambodia’s education spending, are the most important determinant of school quality. 

Over a single school year, students with a poor teacher master 50 percent or less of the curriculum for that grade; students with a good teacher achieve an average gain of one year; and students with great teachers advance 1.5 grade levels or more (Hanushek and Rivkin 2010).  A series of great or bad teachers over several years compounds these effects, leading to unbridgeable gaps in student learning.  By upgrading its teaching force quality, Cambodia can raise student achievement substantially.

The World Bank report contains three key findings and recommendations:

Key Finding Recommendation
1. The best students are not attracted to teaching as a profession. Make teaching a more attractive profession.
2. Trainee teachers have not mastered the content of their lessons and have not practiced in a student-centred learning environment. Improve teacher preparation.

3. Teacher performance has been inhibited by:
Ineffective incentives;
An evaluation system that is disconnected from classroom realities; and;
A lack of opportunities to learn and share best-practice lessons with peers

Encourage stronger classroom performance.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) has brought in a number of new initiatives to address some of the issues identified.  In particular there have been steps taken to address teacher pay, although it will be some time before any impact will be identifiable.

In addition, MoEYS’s current Teacher Action plan looks to introduce a new teaching qualification as from 2020 to address the pre-service recommendation (points 1 and 2 above). Designing appropriate course content material and practical teaching experiences in ‘demonstration’ schools will be challenging enough. But most demanding of all will be the development of the local capabilities necessary to deliver both the academic program, as well as truly foundational experiences for teaching in a live environment. 

While the new Bachelor program is an essential step, it may be many years before it profoundly impacts teaching and learning in Cambodian schools by itself.  For there to be any discernible improvement for the next generation, this initiative needs to be combined with a well thought through strategy for in-service teacher development, addressing recommendation 3 above.   

"Our work is about improving teachers' practices forever for the benefit of the children in their class."

Such an in-service initiative must take a serious stab at developing an understanding of the key elements of an education system, including teacher standards, technical meetings, lesson planning and execution, student-centred learning, and teacher performance management. At the same time the initiative must also address the mechanisms by which these elements are deployed, recognising that the existing apparatus lacks the ability / capability to embed any of these elements without profound development.  

So developing and running in-service training is where we have been concentrating our efforts over the last 8 years. The first two of those years certainly involved a lot of narrowing of the scope of what was achievable, as we learned very rapidly about the environment we had chosen to work in. However we had already identified that we needed to work from the bottom up if we were to offer something sustainable; something that teachers could manage and would respond to. Our work is about improving their practice forever for the benefit of the children in their class.

We are proud of what our team has achieved so far and of being recognised though our first ever international award, the 2014-2015 UNESCO-Hamdan bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Prize for “Outstanding practice and performance in enhancing the effectiveness of teachers”.  That’s what we aim to do as part of our objective to improve public education so families can give their children a real chance of a life beyond poverty.







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