UNESCO supports access to non-formal education via flexible and blended learning for disadvantaged groups in Cambodia
Fifteen-year-old Vorn Ra, a Cambodian secondary student from Seirey Sohka village in the lowlands Mekong province of Tbong Khmum, once had to drop out of school in the sixth grade due to family poverty. The eldest son of three children in the family, he was eventually ordained into his community’s Buddhist monkhood. Having never entirely lost his interest in completing his secondary education, however, Vorn Ra subsequently took up studies through a non-formal education program provided locally by the Cambodian government through Community Learning Centres (CLCs), which was supported by UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education and the NGO, Good Neighbors International. The programme enabled the young monk’s access to flexible learning and blended learning modalities through a local CLC, and after he completed his hybrid studies, Vorn successfully sat for the same graduation exam as his more formal school friends. As a result of his efforts, Vorn Ra received his certificate of completion of lower secondary school, and he is currently matriculated, at grade 10, at a local high school.
Recently recounting his experience with the UNESCO supported programme (it is referred locally by the Cambodian government as the ‘Lower Secondary Equivalency Programme’, or LSEP), Vorn Ra commented, ‘Without the [UNESCO] programme, I could not have continued my studies at all. I think that this programme is very useful for helping dropouts continue learning like more formal school students’.
Vorn Ra is only one among many students currently benefitting from the UNESCO-initiated ‘Increasing Access to Basic Education in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Viet Nam through Flexible Learning Programme’ (hereafter ‘Increasing Access to Basic Education Programme’, or ‘IAI’ [sic]), which is currently funded by ASEAN-Korea Cooperation Fund (ACKF) and implemented regionally in collaboration with Good Neighbors International (Republic of Korea) and UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok. In Cambodia itself, the project has been implemented, to date, with the additional collaboration of Cambodia’s Department of Non-Formal Education (DNFE) of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS). Through this programme implementing countries have been digitalising non-formal education curriculums by developing learning management systems, digitizing learning contents, and distributing them learning contents via various platforms including social media, YouTube, government ministry websites, and television broadcasting. By the end of 2021, education videos provided by the project had reached over 270,000 views in Cambodia alone. Piloted flexible learning programmes have reached five hundred students, and capacity building workshops on blended learning have been conducted for 60 teachers in Cambodia’s provinces.
Fifteen-year-old Ear Thun, of Thboung Khmum province, who dropped out of school during the eighth grade, has also taken part in the IAI programme. As a result, he has gained access to learning opportunities in pursuit of his dreams to become an outstanding student. Ear Thun has subsequently advocated for the programme to be expanded so that it might continue to provide similar opportunities for out-of-school children and other youth in the region. He regards the programme as an indispensable vehicle for ambitious learners to achieve their dreams, recently commenting, ‘My objectives were to become a talented student and, eventually a policeman, and so the programme should continue to operate [similarly for others]’.
Vorn Ra and Ear Thun are only two of some 190,000 out-of-school children and youth in Cambodia according to the most recent figures of 2019 provided by the Department of Non-Formal Education of Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS). Three years ago, the situation had already considerably worsened since 2014, when it was reported that 84,000 Cambodian children and youth were out of school. The prolonged incidence of the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened an already concerning situation. Numerous sources report that many Asia-Pacific children and youth may never return to school-based education. According to the Cambodian MoEYS, the dropout rate of the country’s lower secondary education is nearly 16 per cent (MoEYS, 2020). Thus the Ministry has identified the ensuring of continuity of learning for lower secondary age dropouts as the target goal for the Non-Formal Education Lower Secondary Equivalency Programme (NFE-LSEP).
The primary feature of this programme is its flexible and blended learning modalities, which have helped out-of-school children and youth access learning opportunities that should eventually help them to support their families and communities. The immediate outcome of the programme is that is has clearly enabled vulnerable children and youth, especially the poor, to continue their learning in pursuit of their dreams.
Non-formal education programmes with flexible and blended modalities have also been piloted in Cambodia’s Kampoung Speu province, namely in a Vor commune, where the CLC is conveniently located in a local secondary school. Looking at the situation from a grass-roots perspective, sixteen-year-old Pisey Khema, of Kampong Speu Province, found it necessary to quit school in the ninth grade when she was compelled to take up factory work to help support her family.
Flexible learning modalities of the NFE-LSEP provided Pisey with an uncommon opportunity to resume her studies and, due to her good grades, to acquire a graduation certificate. Like Vorn Ra, Pisey is currently continuing her learning at a local high school.
Noting the advantages of the NFE-LSEP programme, which she considers beneficial overall for not only students, but also their families and, ultimately, the Cambodian nation, Pisey recently commented, ’This programme is very useful for enabling dropouts to continue their studies and become good citizens, so that they can promote family economies and contribute to national development’.
The programme has, to date, produced comparable outcomes in other participating countries in the region. In Laos PDR, over 80 primary education professionals have been trained on flexible learning modalities and assessment, as well as district level monitoring, and evaluation systems have been developed; piloted programs in the country have already targeted over 500 participants. In neighboring Vietnam, learning management system for non-formal education in both primary and lower secondary levels have been improved, and over 180 videos of different school subject have been developed in math, literature, English, social sciences, informatics, and living sciences, among others. Further details on the project’s performance in Lao PDR and Viet Nam are forthcoming.
In the first stage of the project, research on scale and factors contributing to growing populations of out-of-school children and youth (OOSCY) were conducted, and policy framework on flexible, blended, or non-formal education programmes was developed. Piloting of flexible learning programmes in chosen target provinces will constitute the final stage of the pilot project, while UNESCO and its partners prepare for imminent nationwide expansion in Cambodia, Laos PDR, and Viet Nam to enhance equity in education. Currently there are 18 million out-of-school children and youth in Asia-Pacific alone; in Laos PDR itself, 145,000 youth are out of lower secondary school; in Cambodia, 190,000 children and youth lack access to education entirely, and even in Viet Nam, where efforts are being made to provide education to all, every tenth youth, especially in marginalized communities, is left out, with many more in danger of dropping out entirely.
Whether the initiative can continue beyond the first phase of the project, which is winding down this June, will depend upon securing additional funding; consequently, UNESCO is currently seeking additional partners interested in making a lifelong impact on the lives of South-East Asian children and youth in the months to come. In the meantime, further insights, results, and benchmarks of progress made to date will be shared with all current stakeholders and the public in an upcoming Regional Workshop in late June of 2022.
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By Ilja Riekki, Junior Professional Officer, Non-Formal Education and Literacy; Educational Innovation and Skills Development (EISD), UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education (UNESCO Bangkok)
For potential partnering queries and more information contact: i.riekki(at)unesco(dot)org