We want a school! The ambition of a village in North Cambodia

This article originally appeared in the UWS newsletter and is written by UWS ambassador Ian Caswell.

Ian volunteered pro bono for UWS in Cambodia March – May 2014. He is an educational consultant, a qualified teacher and has previously led the MA in Educational Innovation at the University of Warwick. You can follow Ian’s work on his blog at http://theambitionquestion.com/

The article is a summary of Ian’s full report, “United World Schools – A research project evaluating the impact of delivering and establishing primary education in remote rural indigenous villages in Northeast Cambodia”. The executive summary is available at the end of this article.

We want a school!  By Ian Caswell

Girls on Bike outside UWS school 2014-03-03

The thing that struck me about the work of UWS in Northeast Cambodia was just how quickly it was possible to move things on. Having worked in the UK where it is easy to grow accustomed to projects being slowed by the inevitability of meetings, bureaucracy, and delays this made a welcome change…

I should probably pause, reflect and expand on this point a little. Work of course does not always progress quickly in Cambodia, nor do bureaucracy or delays always hamstring projects in the UK with many of them necessary to ensure projects make appropriate progress and adhere to the appropriate guidelines and legislation. No, my experience of working with UWS as they sought to build more new schools simply evidenced how quickly things can actually be achieved when the right conditions (time, money, capacity, impetus, motivation, people) are brought together and effectively harnessed.

I was there in February at the time the UWS team were finalising the locations of their next six primary schools. To evidence this pace, one school had been approved a couple of weeks prior to my arrival and when I visited the village during my first week, the foundations were already being laid. Three weeks later when we returned the small wooden school was practically finished, with the academic year due to start at the beginning of October.

Supporting the main builder were adults from the village. UWS had learnt from their previous schools that is essential that the village should play a central role in both its construction and ongoing management. So, as well as stipulating that a School Support Committee was a requirement of approving a village for any new school, villagers were also expected to assign a designated plot of land for the site, provide wood for the building itself and assist with the final construction, led by the main builder, supplied by UWS.

Another part of UWS approving a new school is the dialogue and process it goes through prior to any final decision being reached which I was fortunately able to observe during my time there.

The UWS team had been contacted about a potential village and we headed there one day to evaluate its suitability for a potential school. Taking representatives from the regional education department to ensure all of the decision makers could be present, UWS then met members of the village leadership to understand more about the village, its hopes, as well as its commitment to the project. Having secured the assurances and information they required they finalised a day the following week to return where they would deliver a test programme with the children of the village. This test programme addresses a number of key questions that Chris Howarth, the charity’s founder, felt were critical to their decision making process and which could only be verified in practice.

Chris and villagers

‘We want to know are there enough kids here in this local area to sustain a school and make it worth building here? Is there support from the village – both the leaders and the Chief, but also the parents? Finally, how do the children respond to structured learning and activities? Are they enthusiastic about learning and working with teachers?’

The following week was really quite a sight to behold and was certainly a highlight of my whole trip. Initially, as we arrived in our 4×4 the signs were not positive with only around twenty children sitting lazily around. Cue though our arrival and a number of hurried messages from the waiting Village Chief and suddenly dozens of further children appeared from nowhere; running up from the river, walking out of their homes, being pulled on the back of a tractor following demands from the Chief, or straddling the back of dusty motorbikes. Alongside this torrent of children – we had nearly a hundred by the time we started our programme, were their parents, keen to see what all the fuss was about and to cheer them along as they participated in the opening activities.


For the rest of the morning the children took part in a range of activities led by the UWS staff, watched intently by their parents and the ever-present Village Chief. The result?

Children outside potential school

All extremely positive; the village will now have a new school come September. ”

Now read Ian’s Full report

Download Ian's Report

Download Ian’s report (PDF 3.5MB)

The article is a summary of Ian’s full report, “United World Schools – A research project evaluating the impact of delivering and establishing primary education in remote rural indigenous villages in Northeast Cambodia”.


Executive Summary from Ian’s report

  • The arrival of a UWS school in Takok Phnong has had a significant and sustained impact on the village community. Students exhibit a clear love of learning, enjoying their lessons and the relationships they have with their teachers, and have a clear rationale of the school’s importance to them as individuals. There is a particularly active School Support Committee that recognises the impact of the school beyond the classroom, ‘There is much more Khmer spoken – better than before. There is also better hygiene. And students help keep house clean and can control the house.’
  • The school in Blai has also brought a sustained change to the village and is having a clear impact on its students and the community despite the relatively short time it has been in operation. Students again exhibit a clear interest in learning, and have developed varying degrees of proficiency in Khmer and Mathematics, which is again also recognised by adults in the village ‘Now kids come home and reads and write’, ‘Yes – there are changes; now my son stops and listens to me.’
  • The prospect of a new school in Som is hugely welcomed by the community with all groups interviewed (parents, children and members of the village leadership) expressing a clear desire to participate and support in establishing the school.
  • Within the villages observed UWS has created functioning schools with established and sustained procedures. Within these working institutions there is a positive learning environment where good relationships between teachers and students are clearly evident.
  • Throughout the three villages visited, people consistently demonstrated a clear recognition of the importance of there being a school in the area and the benefits it would bring. Members of the village leadership were consistently clear that they had a role to play in the success and running of the school and parents were similarly aware of the importance of regular attendance by students.