Cambodia’s indigenous populations have long lagged in learning opportunities, but sweeping multilingual education programmes now mean everyone can make the grade. Writing by Joanna Mayhew; photography by Charles Fox.

Down a rust-coloured dirt path and over an aged bridge in Cambodia’s Kratie province, a small school represents a big change for the country’s ethnic minority groups. The simple, three-room building, panelled in crude wood slats and roofed with tin, provides unprecedented opportunities for its 69 ethnic Phnong students.

Opened in 2011, Tei Chamlong community school offers multilingual education from preschool through to third grade, which includes contextualised teaching in the students’ own language, and bridge learning into the national language of Khmer.

In the past, attendance rates among indigenous students were low, dropout rates were high, and very few children advanced to secondary school. The majority of the Kingdom’s 24 ethnic groups, who speak different languages and make up just 1.5 percent of the population, reside in the northeast provinces, where 64 percent of Ratanakiri’s population are from ethnic minorities.

In these areas, indigenous populations face a myriad of difficulties. Poverty and child mortality is often higher in these communities, health care is limited and ethnic minorities can face discrimination and barriers to employability.

They have also been marginalised from education through practicalities, such as travelling distance to schools and the need to help out at home, as well as through more serious barriers: lessons were taught in Khmer, a language many could not understand, and the Khmer-speaking teachers often had short stints or simply would not come to work, according to non-profit organisation CARE.

“Sending a kid to school means you have less labour. But many poor people know the value of education,” says the organisation’s programme director for ethnic minority women, Jan Noorlander. “If you have to offset sending your kid to school and he gets quality education, you make sacrifices. But if you send your kid to school, and they [constantly] come back at 10am because the teacher hasn’t shown up, you just give up.”

Familiar Foundations
But these trends are beginning to change, through a far-reaching programme providing multilingual education in five of the country’s provinces. Started in 2003 by CARE, with support from the government and UNICEF, the approach means ethnic minorities can start their education in their own language and gradually learn Khmer, before transitioning to Khmer instruction in fourth grade.

“[Research] in other parts of the world shows that a child is able to [better] process information through her mother tongue,” says UNICEF Representative to Cambodia, Debora Comini. “Giving them access to bilingual education, to start in their mother tongue, when Khmer is introduced, it [is] much easier for them to become fluent.”

The programme now provides education in five indigenous languages – which first had to be developed and formalised as written languages, since they were primarily oral.

In total, more than 5,500 children have attended or graduated from multilingual education schools. Enrolment doubled between 2009 and 2015, and teaching in two languages has led to higher literacy rates among ethnic minorities, says CARE.

The approach has included setting up community schools, for ease of access to remote populations, training teachers, who are often from the same communities, and developing colourful and contextualised local language textbooks.

In March, the government launched a three-year Multilingual Education National Action Plan, which will significantly expand the efforts, boosting multilingual preschools by 88 percent and primary schools by 100 percent. But the significance of the plan is found less in the numbers and more in what it says of ownership promised by the government.

Though the government is already a long-term programme supporter – since 2008 it has introduced it in state schools, provided teacher salaries and overseen schools – the plan now publicly affirms support for ethnic communities over the long term.

“It’s amazing they are committing themselves,” says Noorlander. “The leadership has given enormous support.”

Learning Ahead
Back at the community school, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport Dr Hang Chuon Naron surveys how the programme is working. For a high-ranking government official, he maintains a hands-on approach, hearing concerns from teachers and encouraging students by reading along with them.

In the same classroom, 12-year-old Chhean Srey Meth says she wants to someday become a teacher. “I’m happy to be studying,” she adds.

While some nationalists are critical of the multilingual programme – fearing it could lead to secession in a country marred by decades of civil war – the minister is quick to defend it as the best route to an integrated Cambodia.

“Exclusion can create social problems,” he says. “Education is the only equalizer. Maybe they’re poor, or they are rich, but once you have education, it equalizes opportunity.”

Of course, challenges lie ahead. CARE and UNICEF both warn that quality needs to be maintained as the programme expands, and say the need for better-trained teachers is great. And, despite progress, the majority of minorities remain unreached.

But it’s hard to deny the impact made to date. Having lived in the same rural area in Ratanakiri his whole life, 64-year-old Dar Song says the programme has changed the reality for his Tampeun village. “Now the community better understands the advantages of education,” he says. “And all of the children have access to school.”