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From Riches to Rags

Schools and Schooling/Trust and Abuse

It’s Pchum Ben in Cambodia the annual festival to remember ancestors.  My sleep has been disturbed by the partying from the night before that faded-out just as the very early morning chants began from the Buddhist pagodas.  I had the radio on but the BBC World Service was repeating a programme I’d heard before. There was still two hours to go until dawn and breakfast.  I was wide awake, so embarked upon one of those streams of consciousness you try to drift off to sleep.

I was revisiting my time in Devon 1974-8.  I recalled neighbour Phil Gater in Pinhoe who ran his mobile disco business and some of his memorable gigs. One my memory chose to recall was Stover Girls School that hosted the boys from Millfield School.  It got me thinking of the contrast in the schools I’ve known well in my life.  (The annual fees for one child at these schools is of course more than the entire annual budget of most schools in Cambodia.)

As we know every child remembers well all their life his or her schooling and the teachers that make most of a mark on them, a phrase I have chosen to use deliberately. Usually those memories are fond, but not always. 

So this blog is a trip down memory lane.

Stover Girls School was not the only English private school I visited.  I went to Abingdon School  several times between 2003 and 2005 as its teachers and past pupils were the Trustees of the UK charity of our project with disabled people in Kampong Chhnang Cambodia.

Did you spot me aged 11?
I myself attended Grammar Schools in UK, the first of which unashamedly modelled itself on such private schools, By the way I should explain to non-UK folks that for some quirk of Britishness, private schools are called public schools. Public schools as the rest of the world knows them are state schools in UK, though they might be church-affiliated and given other names like community colleges or academies.

For several years in the 1980s I was the Principal Personnel Officer for Dorset County’s Education Service. I recall visiting Sherborne School to conciliate an industrial dispute between manual workers and the management. It was a hybrid school – very much a typical public school in appearances, but actually local authority part-supported too. Years later, I recalled that bizarre experience.

So that is the UK part and top-down description of my schools experience.

My overseas experience, and more bottom-upwards, first began on St Helena Island in the late 1980s, stories I tell in other blogs.  This was a much a more modest set-up but emulating the British model. It’s a place where the teachers had the most encyclopaedic knowledge of their pupils.

My posting with Voluntary Service Overseas took me in to Malawi Schools some of which sought to be remarkably like British public schools. One in particular was bizarre, a carbon copy, and of course the subject of much wonder. (It's worth watching the video.) Another was the secondary school on Likoma Island, the tiny island just off the Lake Malawi coast with Mozambique. Despite its small local population it housed both a massive cathedral and a large residential mixed school with pupils shipped out from the main land.  It was the first time, while sipping my warm Carlsberg Greens or Browns, that I’d seen girls playing basketball with the kind of unrestrained aggression normally associated with burly rugby-players.

So on to Cambodia and numerous human rights and rural development projects. This where we come to the complete contrast from UK and even contrast within the country with some private international schools. It all boils down to fate and the child's lot in life.

The first Human Rights teaching class
One early experience in Cambodia was also bizarre.  I still can’t quite believe my finding nor the astonishment that it was not shared by the local and international experts involved.  This is an actual photograph I took after I persuaded them to change tack.  It was a major multi-donor funded project to teach teachers how to teach human rights. The course was an intensive 5 days. Every school in the country both primary and secondary had at least three teachers attend it. 

The project was organised around cluster schools with the training in a main school central to the others.  As I’d managed to help raise the funds for the training I wanted to see it in action. I observed patiently the four days of classroom teaching but looked forward most to the fifth day when the trained teachers would put their new skills and knowledge in to practice.  (It was a bit teacher-centred as was and tends still to be the way in Cambodia although we did work later to make it more learner-centred.)

The fifth and final day arrived. A model class in the morning was followed by a closing ceremony presided over by an Education minister and Ambassadors of the countries that generously donated the money. It included generous per diems to top up the very meagre official pay of the teachers, so we always had enthusiastic participation. All of this was going on with the buzz of pupils milling around outside spared from their usual in-class lessons for the occasion.

Cambodia Junior High School
Safety Risk?

All in all there were a lot of happy faces and smiles from the teachers involved and the dignitaries in attendance. It was quite good. It was certainly ground-breaking to be talking about human rights in a system still steeped in communism. 

I was asked to say a few words. I went through all the correct formalities, as you must, and indeed complimented all concerned on their fine deeds but expressed one note of concern.

“This morning’s demonstration class was fine but what I don’t understand is why our newly-trained teachers are practising their new skills on fellow teachers, not on real pupils who are here and playing out there!”

This was not to be the first or last time I questioned conventional thought in Cambodia where sticking to convention was and remains very much the norm.  However in fairness to my colleagues and the officials they did indeed eventually agree with my logic.  So the children in my iconic image were the first actual real ones in a human rights teaching class.  I can’t help remarking that they grasped the concepts quicker than some of their teachers!

Readers will note that most public classroom blocks and school grounds are very basic in Cambodia. I will refrain from further comment on the state of their toilets.  Today most schools are better resourced.  However remote rural ones still exist as poor as this one pictured left.

Despite it those pupils will remember their school days as well as their far more illustrious peers in Stover, Millfield, or Sherborne.

And yet despite being more illustrious, children are children everywhere, especially as they approach adulthood and taste freedoms for the first time.  Phil Gater had set up his disco equipment at Stover School ready for the evening frivolities, with many girls making light work of  humping the heavy equipment.  We never saw a teacher. Sixth-formers were in charge.  At first the music played but the room was largely empty. Excited giggly girls stayed outside. We soon learned why.  Buses arrived with boys from Millfield School, an organised social exchange.  The boys and girls all came streaming in to dance but Lo and Behold it wasn’t long before the room emptied again. Almost all had quickly paired-off and disappeared in to Stover’s ample grounds. Ah well you can’t win them all!  

Stover School’s ample grounds

As for Sherborne - well was my early visit a portend for the knowledge that has emerged in recent years, as exposed by Joanna Brittan?  

Sponsored pupils
I had gone all the way from Dorchester to deal with a not untypical dispute between workers and management.  I was surprised when the Headteacher, the top manager, did not show up for the meeting.  I asked “Where is he?”  “Out watching the cricket!” I couldn’t persuade him that he ought to be present but we did solve the dispute without his help. The school was making a mistake in calculating the bonus part of the workers’ pay.  Years later, because my work in human rights, involves cases of child abuse, I learned of the terrible abuse at Sherborne that must have gone on at that time.  It did not surprise me under that kind of “laissez-faire” management.

Today reports of abuse of pupils are emerging from all kinds of establishments from elite schools and seminaries, to humble Buddhist Pagodas, and not just in UK but Australia, Canada and all around the world.

Sadly similarly even Saint Helena made international headlines with one set of allegations of child abuse.

And that is my connecting thread of this story, as per my blog heading of linking a Northumberland life and times with the developing world. 

Children from all walks-of-life can be abused. Adults entrusted with their care can and do abuse that trust. Just as every child remembers his or her school, such abuse marks them for life, in no matter which part of the world in which they live.  

We have much to do to eradicate abuse of children in all places entrusted to protect, care and nurture them.


Jarai ethnic minority girls all sponsored to attend school and stay safely in a supervised hostel in Ratanakkiri Province, Cambodia.

One of the best ways to give Foreign Aid with maximum impact is through a sponsoring a child in a developing country to be able to attend school, to complete schooling, and ideally to go on to higher education.

This is especially important for girls not only to redress inequality with boys but also because it makes them literate numerate mothers and better parents.

It is also important for indigenous ethnic minority students where it helps entire communities to make best choices in how to integrate modernity with tradition.

And it is important for families living with disability.  Indeed it can make the difference whether a disabled child can attend school at all or as in the case pictured above right of a very grateful girl with her two friends. She was the sole carer of her severely disabled mother.  The bicycle US$ 30 enabled her to access school from home.

Sponsorship can be arranged quickly and easily. For UK sponsors I would recommend Plan International.

Finally as I have expounded much I do advocate for formal child self-protection groups and networks everywhere as the best means to deter and identify abuse. The UK relies too much on its top-down expert and adult-led safeguarding approach. It should learn from countries like Cambodia.

Updates and Comments (latest first)

27 September 2022

First comment and thread on Twitter - and a good point as to how ICT social media skills are well-used by perpetrators of child abuse but not yet fully-developed and widely-shared for protection:


1 comment:

  1. Great post. https://www.learningenglish-cambodia.com/