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A Dispatch from United World Schools: How UWS is Revitalizing Education in Cambodia and Nepal

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the education sector, affecting the lives of 1.6 billion students globally.

Overcoming the challenges presented by Covid-19 has required unparalleled commitment and collaboration from change-makers all over the education sector, including our team at United World Schools.

With this in mind, we were thrilled to welcome students back to schools in Nepal in November 2020, followed by their counterparts in Cambodia in January 2021. Getting students back to school as soon and as safely as possible is a critical move for UWS; while we remain extremely proud of our distance learning programmes – accessed by 36,240 students during lockdown – we recognise that these efforts are no match for the classroom. The joy of returning to school was clear to see; when UWS Takok Charai School in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province reopened, our Education Officers told us about the smiling faces of the children, so happy to be returning to their friends, to their classrooms, and to the prospect of a bright future.

Attending school in-person offers young children the chance to develop vital social skills in a more stimulating environment, while equipping teachers with far greater opportunities to provide input and assessment. We were, therefore, so excited to welcome students back to school in Cambodia, with strict safety measures in place.

A key element in delivering this mission will be our efforts to enable every child to come back to school. Crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic typically have the greatest impact on the poorest and most marginalised, meaning many UWS students are at risk of not returning to school and remaining trapped in the cycle of poverty. It is important to remember that we operate in areas of extreme deprivation where the culture of education is new and fragile; with schools closed for the majority of the past 12 months, many students have instead turned to labour in order to support their families.

Our in-country teams, therefore, have been working tirelessly to reach out to students and their families to ensure they will return. Central to this are our efforts to form close ties with each community we serve, gaining their trust over years of partnership. In each school we establish, UWS recruits and trains community members as teachers – a model that offers employment opportunities within each community, while ensuring that the education we offer is locally-contextualised and culturally relevant. We recognise that these teachers, with the support a locally-led governing body known as the School Support Committee (SSC), possess a far greater knowledge of the specific challenges facing families within their community – knowledge that is essential in addressing the barriers to education that Covid-19 has now exacerbated.

With the support of our in-country teams, these teachers and SSCs have been able to offer targeted support to individual students to encourage them to re-enrol, easing students back into the routine of education within Covid-19 guidelines. They have carried out community-wide ‘back-to-school campaigns’ as well as household visits to drive retention. During these visits, teachers and SSC members have communicated the safety measures in place at all schools to reassure students and their parents, while we are adapting the school curriculum in order to focus on student wellbeing and the recovery from learning losses during this stressful period.

Despite all these positives, we recognise that the situation remains extremely challenging. Indeed, following a rise in Covid-19 cases around the country, our schools in Cambodia were once again forced to close their doors in line with government guidance, with students returning to distance learning until the end of April at least. However, while there are clearly still mountains to climb, we are feeling hopeful. We’ve seen clear signs of success in the early months of our re-enrolment programme, with our outreach efforts resulting in a month-on-month increase in returning students. In Nepal, for example, 75% of students had re-enrolled by the end of November 2020, rising to 96.2% by January 2021. By February, there were 19,000 students enrolled across 151 UWS schools in Cambodia and Nepal. Perhaps most excitingly, this included over 3,500 new students – clear evidence of the wider interest in education that is continuing to flourish in these communities despite the present pandemic. We were also pleased to see that almost half of these returning students were girls, with this even gender split reflecting the continued belief among the communities we work that girls have the right to education as much as boys. Finally, the head teacher of Takok Charai has shared that all seven Grade 6 students in the 2019-2020 academic year successfully passed exams and graduated from primary school. Of these students, he was proud to report that five of them have already enrolled in secondary education. Secondary education would have been beyond their reach, had they not been able to go to UWS Takok Charai School.

Our work to bring all students back to school is a vital element of UWS’ plans for 2021, and it would not be possible without the active participation of each community or the expertise of our in-country teams, and the support of our partners and donors. We are indebted to our network of supporters from all over the world, who have played a critical role in helping UWS to adapt to the challenges of Covid-19. This includes the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), an organisation which partnered with UWS for the first time in November 2020 to support our education continuation programme. The Foundation’s global Covid-19 relief initiative has supported causes all over the world to address new needs presented by the pandemic, enabling UWS to adapt our programmes and rebuild for a new environment.

Millions of children are still experiencing significant disruption to their education, and some remain out of school entirely. It’s our mission to reach these children. With effective partnerships, and mutual support, we can recover and revitalise education to minimise the lasting impact of Covid-19 – both in the short-term and beyond.

By United World Schools