Education should be the right of all children, but research shows us that children in Cambodia face many barriers to assessing education. Poverty prevents many children from going to school, especially in rural areas, where families cannot afford the direct and indirect costs related to education. Helping out at home, working on the land or finding paid employment often takes preference over education. Children with disabilities are even more likely to be found on the margins of the educational system. They face countless barriers caused by families and society alike. Frequently families do not see the value of educating children with disabilities, and in some cases children are seen as a stigma and hidden away. Society and schools have a responsibility to make this transition from the confines of home to school easier. Inaccessible school buildings mean, for example that children with disabilities may not be able to got to school. Structural barriers, such as policies that do not include any provision of the specific needs of children and young people with disabilities can also prohibit inclusion.

In a partnership with Educate A Child, a global initiative launched by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser of Qatar, which aims to reduce the number of children missing out on their right to education and international NGO Aide Et Action, Epic Arts is part of a consortium of organisations across Cambodia working as part of  ‘Education for All: An Integrated Approach project’. The project seeks to reach the most marginalized children to ensure that they receive a quality primary education.

Here’s an interview with Kagna Sam from Epic Arts talking about the opening of its first ‘integrated class’ as part of ‘Education for All’.

What is your role at Epic Arts?

I am team leader of the Special Education Project at Epic Arts. SEP comprises of three classes – Peace Class, Independence Class and Inclusive Education Class. The Independence Class is designed to teach young adults with learning disabilities a range of life skills that will set them on the path to greater independence. Students learn basic gardening, sewing, washing clothes, cooking, dancing, and handicraft skills. Peace Class offers children with learning disabilities, aged 6 – 10 the opportunity to learn about the world through play. The Inclusive Education is the newest of our classes. Its sole purpose is to help children identified as absence from school (Out of School Children - OOSC) to engage with education and reintegrate them back into mainstream education. Alongside overseeing the planning and curriculum for these three classes and managing the teaching team, I also keep myself busy by teaching some classes.

How long have you worked for Epic?

I’ve worked at Epic Arts for 5 years.
As team leader I overview all aspects of the project, from setting up the initial meeting with the School Director to conducting an audit of the school’s accessibility devices such as handrails and ramps for children using wheelchairs, I’m involved from the ground up. I also teach the integrated class.
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia and is still recuperating from years of turmoil. We are a young nation. With young people under the age of 14 comprising of 32 per cent of the population, Cambodia has the youngest population in Southeast Asia. It is vital that we invest in our young people at the earliest stages, particularly at primary school level.

Please can you tell me about the Trey Koh School project.

What is the aim of the project?

In March 2015 Epic Arts opened a satellite class in Trey Koh Primary School, Kampot Province. The class is part of a larger international initiative called ‘Education for All’, aiming to ensure children from poor families, children who have dropped out of education and those with disabilities have access to education. This classes is called ‘integrated’ because we plan to bring children identified as OOSC and children with disabilities, sometimes referred to as CwD, up to a good enough academic standard to be reintegrated back into mainstream classes, where they will learn alongside children without disabilities. This principle of ‘integration’ is the first step in the road to fully ‘inclusive’ classes in the school.

Why did Epic Arts start the project?

Epic Art has been working with children and young people with disabilities and without disabilities since 2001. Educational inclusion is the core principle behind our work. We jumped at the chance to get more involved with Educate A Child and Aide et Action, especially considering our experience in the field of providing a child-centred learning environment.

What have you most enjoyed about the project?

Working on this project has allowed me to get more involved in local education at a strategic level. Since the project first started it has been my privilege to work alongside the local community and senior public school staff.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the project so far?

The most challenging aspect of the project has been navigating the correct protocol needed to secure the Department of Education and Provision Office of Education’s commitment.

What do you think are the benefits of working with public schools to establish ‘integrated classes and ‘inclusive education’ in Cambodia?

Integrated classrooms and inclusive education is vital to the growth of Cambodia. A country in which children - rich and poor, with disabilities and without disabilities learn side by side, will undoubtedly contribute towards dispelling myths, breaking down barriers, ending stigma and promoting inclusion and equality. In an environment where schools and NGOs freely share experiences to eliminate discrimination against students with disabilities, parents, the wider community and teachers' awareness of the importance of educating of children with disabilities will become embedded. And as a parent of a young child with Down’s syndrome, that is the light of hope I have for my son.