Cambodian Schools Project

This is not a project about politics, or about taking sides, much as we totally condemn the violence that has persisted in Cambodia.  It was about restoring the right of children to live a normal life.

Note: The pages are set out here as they were diarised at the time of the first visits, from 2000.


The initial focus of the project was in the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation Area, in a state of semi-war with the Cambodian government since the Genocide was stopped in 1979 by the Vietnamese. History here.

For decades, a confused education situation has existed in Anlong Veng and the nearby districts.

Map: Mick Yates.


Before 1970 there were a few classrooms in a single pagoda. In early 1970, the area became a part of the war front against the Lon Nol regime, and education activities were severely affected by the fighting. The area was occupied by the Khmer Rouge up to 1975, the time of the fall of Phnom Penh.

In the period 1975 to 1979,  the whole country, including Anlong Veng, had no education system, except for ideological training of children which served Khmer Rouge purposes.

After 1979, with the ‘liberation’ of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese, the people in Anlong Veng hoped that they would live in peace, security and stability.  Unfortunately they still had to suffer from continued conflict between the Government and the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge lost the war against Vietnam, their forces retreated to the jungle areas such as Pailin, Malai and Anlong Veng.

Thus, from 1978 to 1998 the Anlong Veng area still continued to be the battlefield in the struggle between the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian Governments of various descriptions.

Our involvement, from 1999

We had visited Cambodia on a family vacation in 1994, going to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat for the first time. Not too far away, there was still sporadic fighting going on between the Cambodian Government and the Khmer Rouge. Mainly it consisted of rather opportunistic shelling. In fact, we could hear the occasional shells exploding as we walked through Angkor, on a vivid blue sky day. This gun fire led us to study the history of Cambodia, and in particular most recent events. We decided that we wanted to get involved, to do something about this very sad situation. And in particular we settled on the idea of helping with children’s education.

in 1998, when Pol Pot died, it became clear that we could actually ‘do something’. Ingrid researched how best to go about supporting reconstruction, and decided we should work with Save the Children. She had flown to London to meet Save the Children (UK), but frankly Cambodia was not one of their project areas. That was the responsibility of Save the Children (Norway).

So, Ingrid visited Cambodia in 1999, with good friend Gwen, and our son Dave, to the Siem Reap area. That was the first time any of us met Sarath, who worked with Save the Children leading their primary education efforts. He was to be the real driver of the project, and became a great friend. Ingrid also met Gunnar Andersen for the first time, who was then the Director of all Save Norway’s Cambodian activities – and who also became a very good friend over the years.

The picture below shows Sarath in 2000, distributing Save’s educational magazine.


Mick Yates. 2000. Sarath. Trapeang Prasat.

Ingrid did the initial educational project assessment, talking in depth with Save the Children (Norway) and the Provincial Education Office (PEO).

A plan was built to create primary schooling capability in what was now the ‘Reconciliation Areas’. The Government had essentially done a deal with the Khmer Rouge, to bring those areas under Government control, end the fighting, and leave the community leaders in place. So the stage was set for the plan to be executed. At that time only UN or Cambodian agencies were really working in these areas, and Save the Children was just getting started, with Sarath making early reconnaissance visits to the Reconciliation Areas.

The situation in 2000

From May 1998 to 2000, the situation in Anlong Veng had been quite calm, and no fighting took place. However, the living conditions of the people were miserable. They lacked proper shelter, food, safe drinking water, medicine, latrines and so on. Another dowry of war was a large quantity of land mines covering nearly all of the territory, which prevented agriculture and other income generation. People were killed or injured by mines weekly, especially children.

Most of the people lived in small cottages in the forest, although the district government was building a central town and market area. Because of the lack of proper shelter, sanitation and hygiene facilities, the people in the whole community were still affected by malaria, fever, diarrhoea and other diseases.

Transportation and communication was also very poor. The distance from one village to another varied between 5 to 15 kilometres, so even local distances were a problem. The distance from Siem Reap (the major town near Angkor Wat) to Anlong Veng is 120 Km. Yet, in the dry season (our visit was March), it still took 5 hours – and we had no interruption by mines. A few weeks before our trip a bulldozer building the new road was blown up by an anti-tank mine, and the driver seriously injured. In the rainy season, most of the roads were flooded, and passage almost impossible.

Khmer Rouge education

The Khmer Rouge established their own education system, not least to support their ideology. They saw education as a way to manage and control society. In Anlong Veng, there was a formal primary school curriculum developed, including textbooks. These focused on strengthening the children’s knowledge, skills and attitudes in the ‘basics’, but also on producing and setting bamboo traps and mines.

Older children were sent to the front lines to set traps and mines. We heard about this first hand. The learning process was clearly designed to strengthen children’s skills to become full soldiers when they were 14, 15 or 16 years old.

The teachers in Anlong Veng used to have 3 tasks: be a teacher; be a farmer; and be a soldier.

Mick Yates. 2000. Sen Sam School, Trapeang Prasat.

We stopped at a village just outside Trapeang Prasat, Sen Sam. There were 3 teachers; one teacher trained children on numeracy and literacy, another trained children on how to produce bamboo traps and local mines, and another trained children on Khmer Rouge ideas.

There was functionality in the training of these teachers.  Thus, there were teachers in place who had some of the necessary organization skills, but very little of the appropriate knowledge.  Nevertheless, training these teachers was an important ‘entry strategy’ for the project.

The children living in these marginalised circumstances were subjected to rigid control.  There was much trauma and recall of tactics that were adopted to keep the  population subdued.  Children seemed to find it difficult to smile … see the Trapeang Prasat or Anlong Veng photo galleries.

Still, and most importantly, whilst these children had lost a lot of their childhood, they survived and wanted to learn. These survival skills needed to be respectfully recognized as another important entry strategy.

The bad news

The educational structure was only recently being established. The proficiency of the local institutions was immature and inadequate, and there were  hardly any Government funding available. In term of proficiencies, there were very limited skills to help design, plan, implement, facilitate, manage, and organize the project. No cluster school system had been established. The schools which were operational only have up to Grade 4. Education staff were unfamiliar with educational working principles, guidelines, policies and administration procedures necessary for educational development.

Children lacked learning materials, such as writing books, pens, pencils, reading materials etc. There was a lack of basic learning teaching aids, materials and equipment for teachers. There were no library facilities, woefully few classrooms or school buildings, or sanitation facilities. Few children had access to primary school; and there were many children in the lower school ages, (about 50 % were 8 – 14 years old) who only learnt Grade 1.

Malaria and land-mines prevented children from regularly coming to class, and family poverty limited the long term support to children in education.  Parents needed their children to help on the farm to earn income instead of going to school. Many families were functionally illiterate.

The good news

Local communities, the ex Khmer Rouge leadership and all teachers were committed to support the project. The Halo trust, the Cambodian Mine Action Committee (CMAC) and the Provincial Authorities were in the process of clearing the landmines. A small group of teachers in Anlong Veng and Trapeang Prasat had the basic competencies, so that, with training, they could take over the PEO’s / Save the Children’s responsibilities.

The Provincial Education Office (PEO) had staff who were able to implement in-service teacher training, given some technical support from Save the Children. CARERE (a UNDP program) was in the process of developing a program for community development in the Anlong Veng area. Other NGOs were in the process of establishing programs on social and health development.  Médecins sans Frontieres were setting up health care, and Trapeang Prasat had a small clinic.

The teachers

In the Reconciliation Areas were the program started, the total number of teachers in the 4 districts was 248.

There were three types of teacher: The majority of these people are former Khmer Rouge “teachers”, who had very little formal knowledge or pedagogical skills. Second, there were a small number of educated teachers who had a Grade 7 or 8 content base. Unfortunately, these teachers have never had formal ‘teacher training’. They were volunteer teachers or contract teachers. They moved from other areas to live with their relatives in the Anlong Veng district. Finally, there were a smaller number of young teachers who under the Khmer Rouge volunteered to be teachers or contract teachers. They were dedicated but had very little formal education and had no teacher training.

As many of the teachers and families had been members of the Khmer Rouge community for so long, and suffered the same disadvantages as the children, there was a clear opportunity to also enhance their (and the communities in general) via this project.



Communes Villages Families Population Children 0-5 years Children

6-15 years

Children at school

Anlong Veng 5 47 5,414 26,270 3,328 11,473 1,587
Trapeang Prasat 6 37 2,636 13,975 6,495 7,738 4,286
Varin 5 25 3,072 16,568 3,268 5,907 3,341
Angkor Chum 7 84 9,229 50,770 9,058 14,566 4,349
Total 23 193 20,351 107,583 22,149 39,684 13,563

The Project

The project was managed by Norwegian Save the Children (Redd Barna) working collaboratively with the Siem Reap Provincial Education Office and the District Education supervisors.  Families and the children themselves were also actively involved. The Cambodian Ministry of Sports, Education & Youth (MOEYS) supplied some materials for teachers and children, such as textbooks, teacher manuals etc. The main initial funding was via the Yates family.

The project aimed to prepare children in the Reconciliation Areas to re-join the mainstream of national education and thus national society. It also hoped to re-establish the Rights of the Child – it was not through ‘preaching’ about Child Rights, rather through teaching and empowering children we hoped to give the ability to practice these Rights.

This was done through participatory learning, learning through play, group work, problem solving, and home-school association.  The larger goal was to reinforce and foster self-dignity and self-respect.

  • Improving the quality and sustainability of the teachers and the teaching program as the focus of the project.
  • An “each one teaches another one” plan was used, where the first sites for intervention generated new human resources (Teacher Leaders) capable of generating others through their own efforts.
  • The Teacher Leader of one site thus became the trainer of another similar site.  Sustainability and self-regulation were to be achieved.
  • Phasing in and phasing out of all activities was integral to the sustainable design. This transcended the phasing in / out of Save the Children, and extended to the ‘partners of partners’ (i.e., the local authorities and the local Teacher Leaders, who taught others).  At each step new owners took over the authority and responsibility for the activities with the children. The aim was a self-generating, self-leading educational system which got rapid results.
  • Educational interventions took into account the children’s unique survival proficiencies, and their accompanying knowledge, skills and attitudes.
  • The project formed a functional District schooling base on which to gradually establish convergence with the new National curricula and textbooks from the MOEYS.
  • A clear objective was to demonstrate a viable (test market/best practice) model to re-apply quickly to other areas suffering similar problems.
  • The project ran from 2000 to 2003.

The leader of the project on the ground was Keo Sarath, from Save the Children. Despite suffering severely during KR times, he had dedicated his life to improving the lives of his fellow Cambodians.   

Project targets

In 2000, the project focused on building infrastructure in Trapeang Prasat, and teacher education in Anlong Veng. This reflected the relatively advanced state of building in Anlong Veng, although school attendance was lower than Trapeang Prasat. In 2001, the project moved onto Varin and Angkor Chum.

Mick Yates. 2001. Sen Sam School, Trapeang Prasat.

Over the three year program, the goals for all 4 districts were:

  1. At least 50 % of the total number of 6 – 14 years old children gain access to primary school.
  2. The Provincial Education Office people trained in the appropriate administrative, reporting and development techniques.
  3. Educational mobile teams set up in Anlong Veng, Trapeang Prasat, Varin and Angkor Chum.  Each will have a clear structure, role and set of responsibilities to help provide regular in-service teacher training.
  4. Supervisors at the Provincial Education Office will have structured cooperation with the District educational supervisors to continually improve the program.
  5. All schools will have a school development and implementation plan.
  6. Each school will have a school support committee from the community.
  7. The Provincial Education Office will conduct workshops on school planning for district education staff and school head teachers.
  8. All teachers will be made familiar in the use of new textbooks, teacher manuals and guide-books on how to prepare classes. Workshops will be run on a continuous basis to facilitate this.
  9. Teachers will have lesson plans, with 3 levels of questions, factual recall, comprehension and application that reflect the intended learning outcomes.
  10. Teachers will use the school-home relationship book and child progress books as tools to communicate with parents.
  11. Teachers will apply basic ‘child friendly’ methodologies in all teaching activities.
  12. There will be a regular technical ‘Thursday Meeting’ at school to help teachers to support children who have learning difficulties.
  13. Children and teachers will write storybooks for other children, teachers and supervisors to facilitate wider knowledge and speed up community involvement.
  14. 3 core librarians from each district will be trained on library management and administration.
  15. Libraries will be established at each school, including reference materials and basic equipment for supporting the learning teaching activities.
  16. At least  5 classrooms and 1 library will be built for each core school, with the appropriate furniture. Also 1 toilet and 1 well will be built for each school. Satellite (cluster) schools will be built as appropriate to bring the education to the children, to eliminate their travelling.
  17. Data will be collected related to children learning such as: total number of children, access to school, disabled children, living condition of families, school infrastructure, school activities etc. to aid program development.
  18. The Provincial Education Office of Siem Reap will document the experience and share with MOEYS, and the PEOs of other provinces (Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Kompong Chhnang, Kompot, and Pursat) that also have Reconciliation Areas.

The 2002 project report from Save the Children (Norway) is here.

The diaries written as the project ran are here.

And the archival project photo galleries are here.

Header: Mick Yates. 2006. Hands.

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