It has been a day of many firsts for me.
I woke at 5am following my first night sleeping in a hammock and after a Cambodian breakfast of noodles and vegetables (Weetabix wasn’t on the menu) it is now 7am and I am watching the first group of children arrive at their primary school.
Most ignore me as they arrive; removing their sandals, as is the local custom, before heading into their classrooms. A few do wander over and smile, perhaps accompanied by a small bow but they too quickly then rush into the classrooms to join their friends. For the next twenty minutes they play with the jigsaws left at the back of one classroom, look through a number of storybooks or grab a couple of wooden balls and play with them on the rough ground outside. No one is supervising them; they simply organise and amuse themselves.
Around 7.20am a small group grab sweeping brushes and start cleaning the main decking area as well as the grounds surrounding the school itself, whilst another student grabs a lighter and starts burning the piles of rubbish and leaves that have by then been swept together by the others. Alongside this early activity more students continue to arrive, alongside a number of the village animals who just happen to be wandering through at the same time. It is quite a sight for someone used to the normal UK ‘school run’ and all that it normally entails.
I am a little transfixed; both by the contrast to the UK but also the autonomy of it all. The first teacher arrives about 7.30am and goes to check on his own classroom; another couple of students set up the hand-washing area with water from the village well, a towel and some soap, and later in the day I observe many of the students using it without needing a reminder, as they return from from break time.
On this, my first morning observing a remote village school in Cambodia, two other things stand out; both though because of their notable absence.
Firstly, there is no perimeter fence surrounding the school – keeping the kids in, or keeping other people out. At morning break students simply head away from the school, back into the village before wandering back to class a little while later. This reminded me of two starkly contrasting school visits I made in previous jobs: one to Sweden, another to New York in the US. Having worked in London schools where all visitors pass through reception and sign in, I was really thrown when in Sweden I realised there was no perimeter fence surrounding the school. At break time, many people in the community simply walked through the playground on their way into town, saying hello to the teachers as well as some of the students as they passed. By extreme contrast, greeting students in the New York City High School was a metal detector with armed security guards; all in place to ensure weapons weren’t brought onto the school site.
Secondly, there were absolutely no arguments between the kids. Yes, they disagreed on occasions – most often during the different games they were playing. But there were no tantrums, no crying or screaming fits; they simply worked together and had already learnt the importance of compromise and collaboration.
Reflecting on this the following day as we returned to Bunlung, I wondered if this was in fact a common trait for Cambodian children or whether this was unique in these small rural areas; where the village community and its very few possessions was simply the entire world to these young children. Completing this article a few weeks later, it appears to very much be the latter. Speaking to teachers working in Bunlung I heard how their students would frequently squabble and get upset, and parents who I spoke with also supported this – indicting that their kids of course threw regular tantrums over the smallest things.
I touched on the topic of happy students early in this project following research that sought to highlight the countries that had the best schools as well as the happiest kids. The small rural communities in Cambodia often didn’t have schools, or if they did it was most likely a very recent thing – but they certainly appeared to be happy…