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International Day of Education 2021: How United World Schools is Revitalizing Education in Cambodia

To mark International Day of Education 2021, we reflect on UWS’ efforts to get students back into the classroom safely in Cambodia. This would not have been possible without the help of partners such as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF). While so many students continue to experience severe disruption to their education, it’s more important than ever to work together to recover and revitalise education.

By United World Schools (UWS)

The Covid-19 pandemic had an enormous impact on the education sector, affecting the lives of 1.6 billion students globally. In recognition of this far-reaching disruption, UNESCO has chosen ‘Recover and Revitalize Education for the Covid-19 Generation’ as the theme for this year’s International Day of Education.

International Day of Education 2021 presents an opportunity to celebrate education actors around the world, and their efforts to ensure that children can continue to learn despite the challenges we currently face. Overcoming the challenges presented by Covid-19 has required unparalleled commitment and collaboration from change-makers all over the education sector, and we want to celebrate that today.

With this in mind, we are thrilled to share that our schools in Cambodia have now successfully reopened for the new academic year. 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 35,000 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 in 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 are, 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 are, therefore, working tirelessly to reach out to students and their families to ensure they will return. In the coming weeks at UWS Takok Charai School, as in many of our schools, we will focus on easing the students back into the routine of education within Covid-19 guidelines.

While there are still mountains to climb, we are feeling hopeful. Towards the end of 2020, schools in Cambodia were reopened briefly before rising Covid-19 cases in Phnom Penh caused another cautionary lockdown. In the short time that schools were open, we saw 11,913 students come back to their classrooms. They were joined by a further 140 new students enrolling, showing the wider interest in education that is continuing to flourish in these communities. We were 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. The headteacher of Takok Charai 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 - on the International Day of Education and beyond.