We started the day early, though the heat and humidity never sleep. We wanted to get a head start in visiting the Toul Leap School in the Bakan district. This rural area is home to mostly rice farmers, and we saw their cattle and fields spread out over the land as we made our way to the school, an hour outside the provincial town. The first people we saw when we pulled up were children, running around outside, excited to see the new visitors. They lined up to great us and the language barrier was no match for the smiles everyone shared.
We were introduced first to the principal of Toul Leap and the Chair of the School Support Committee. The principal informed us that there 628 students at their school, which has been continuously operating since 1979, after being closed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. They have children as young as four in the pre-primary education classes, and as old as 11 in the primary grades 1-6.
The principal was very grateful for the support the IKEA Foundation has provided in supplies, building materials, training and meeting children’s health and safety needs. However, there is still a great need for more. The school used to have 20 teachers but is now down to nine as it is hard to retain teachers in these rural areas. I was particularly moved by a conversation with the School Support Committee Chair. When asked what made him join the committee (he has been a member for 16 years), he said that he did not receive education as a child. He wanted to do everything he could to help other children have what he did not.
After our interviews it was play time! The children had a break and filled the empty courtyard with their laughs and excited chatter. At first they were wary of the outsiders in bright yellow, but quickly felt comfortable as we took pictures together and started a game of jump rope. The kids were happy to show off their skills and took turns skipping rope. A serious game of marbles was happening elsewhere in the yard and the boys meant business in knocking the balls out of line. They were too busy to be bothered by our photo taking, the game was at hand!
After the play yard fun, we went to observe one of the fourth grade classrooms. These kids are smart! The teacher challenged the students against each other to speed read, identify Khmer words, and spell letters correctly for all the glory. One of the challenges the IKEA Foundation is trying to overcome with Save the Children is the inclusion of children with disabilities in the school system.
Currently, there is not a system in place that can properly screen, treat and teach children with physical or intellectual disabilities. With the support of NGOs, the community and local and national government, Save the Children has developed a programme that provides training for teachers on how to identify and teach these and other marginalised children in the classroom. The goal is to better prepare children with disabilities for success and empower them to stay in school and create better lives for themselves.
It is very inspiring to see the children of Toul Leap School focusing on their future. Not only did we get to witness the excitement of learning in the classroom, we also had the chance to hear from the student council. This is made up of seven sixth graders who are each responsible for different areas of the school, like physical activities, art, health and sanitation. Not only do they work within the school, they also go into the community and give lessons on health and nutrition and help collect children who are not currently in school or have dropped out. These children have aspirations of being doctors, teachers and artists when they grow up.
It is incredibly moving and uplifting to see these kids work to overcome the many challenges they face in their pursuit of higher learning. These include limited budget from the government, not enough teachers in the rural areas, migration of parents out of villages to find work, competition from the factories to have children make money now, and a lack of training to deal with children with disabilities. These are just some of the struggles the schools face. It’s a challenge for children to stay in school and complete their education.
Despite the barriers, the Inclusive Education for All programme has just started and this phase of implementation will run until 2018. I’m excited and hopeful to see what strides are made in this time and see the programme expand to other schools.