Cambodia’s rural areas are gearing towards a more inclusive schooling system

Integrating children with learning difficulties in schools is a priority for Save the Children in Cambodia. In the Pursat province, they support several projects that facilitate this process. We visited two schools and saw first-hand the progress that communities and schools have made over the years in making education more accessible to them.

Fifth grade children playing in the schoolyard. Manuel Rotzinger

We arrived at the school in the morning and were greeted by officials from the school and the community. During the introduction, we learned that there are around 11 teachers responsible for almost 500 kids. One half comes to school in the morning, the other in the afternoon, six days a week. After the IWitnesses split into groups, we all visited different classes and played lots of fun games with  children full of excitement and energy.

Children with learning difficulties are usually integrated into the conventional classes, since there are no different skill levels. However, this particular school has a class with children who have more severe forms of disabilities —such as Down’s syndrome or severe forms of autism. When we visited the class, they seemed excited to meet us, and we played with Lego bricks and other toys. It was impressive to see that these children are getting special attention, in a country where disabled children were stigmatised for a long time. Being predominantly Buddhist, Cambodians long thought that disabilities were caused by bad Karma in an earlier life. Now that most children have access to schools and education, this is a next step towards making education accessible to more children.

A boy showing pictures on his imaginary camera. By Manuel Rotzinger.

I was particularly impressed by a boy with Down’s syndrome, who welcomed us in getting chairs to sit down and fooled around using Lego bricks as an imaginary camera to show pictures. He also proved to be a great football player, and his joy was very contagious—to us and other children around.

A boy enjoys a ride on the carousel. By Manuel Rotzinger.

It was very encouraging to see that even in Cambodia’s most rural areas, children with special needs have a chance to get access to education that supports their development. On the one hand, teachers, school officials and the communities have developed a sensitivity that these children require a different treatment than others. On the other hand, there is an increasing number of institutions and actors that create awareness around this topic and help to remove the stigma around it. However, this was a model school. Today, roughly 10% of the schools in this area of Cambodia pay special attention to children with disabilities, so there is still a long way to go. I hope that this development continues and that access to health and education will keep getting better in remote regions—in Cambodia and beyond.

I would also like to thank Save the Children for the great organisation—we were all very grateful to be part of this wonderful experience. And to everyone who invited or accommodated us and all the smiles we got—even from people living in very difficult conditions. I will definitely come back!

A school class with teachers and three Iwitnesses—the author Manuel, Sylvan and Monika—in the background. By El Lap, Save the Children.