Under the Khmer Rouge, books were destroyed and educated elites were targeted in pursuit of a rural utopia. Sara Coen spoke to Kate Shuttleworth about rebuilding the country’s shattered education system.
Kate Shuttleworth finds it difficult to believe that during her final years at high school, an entire generation was systematically wiped out and she barely heard a thing about it.
An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. The communist group ruled Cambodia under the leadership of Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979.
Buried in her textbooks, Kate was oblivious to the tragic story unravelling thousands of kilometres away from her boarding school in Chelmsford, England.
Today however, the 52-year-old is acutely aware of the situation in Cambodia, particularly when it comes to challenges associated with rebuilding its shattered education system.
In 2009, while completing a Masters in Educational Leadership at ACU’s Strathfield Campus, Kate and her husband Ed established SeeBeyondBorders - an initiative that aims to improve access to quality education for children in Cambodia.
“We wanted SeeBeyondBorders to focus on a specific aspect of redevelopment – education being the obvious choice, given my teaching background and our belief that education is a critical factor in helping a person climb out of a life of poverty,” Kate said.
It was a family trip to Cambodia in 2001 that initially inspired the couple to do something to support communities in Cambodia.
“We took our three children on a house-building project with the Tabitha Foundation Australia – an organisation which runs development programs for Cambodian communities, and it really opened our eyes to the poverty there,” Kate said.
“It was shocking to witness the aftermath of Pol Pot’s regime and see how it is still impacting people’s lives today.”
In their attempt to create a new revolutionary Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge set out to eradicate the traditional elements of Cambodian society – including the education system. Educated elites were targeted, and either killed or forced to work in labour camps. Books, buildings and other educational resources were destroyed.
Even today, extreme poverty, particularly in rural areas, means the value of education is often overlooked, with children having to work alongside their parents to earn enough to survive.
“The devastation and suffering we saw was overwhelming at first, but sparked a really strong desire to help in some way,” Kate said. “For a while we even considered moving to Cambodia permanently.”
But with young children settled in school, Kate settled on giving her support as a volunteer in Australia, and Ed took several volunteer and school groups to Cambodia to work on projects with both Tabitha and Jesuit Services.
In 2009 they took a leap and founded SeeBeyondBorders.
“SeeBeyondBorders is all about improving access to schools for children in Cambodia and the quality of teaching that happens in them,” Kate said. “We are tackling three areas –training local teachers through workshops and mentoring programs; developing school infrastructure; and providing support to families with school-aged children in the form of rice, academic scholarships, bicycles and uniforms.”
SeeBeyondBorders facilitates four-day residential ‘Teach the Teacher’ workshops in Cambodia – supported to date by more than 30 qualified volunteer teachers from across Australia.
The workshops specifically aim to improve and develop maths education skills, and are attended by up to 140 Khmer teachers at a time. The program also trains skilled teachers to mentor their colleagues, ensuring long-term support beyond the duration of the workshops.
“We are very conscious that we do not want to build another dependency model,” Kate said. “This is not about showing them how the Aussies do it better. It’s about building a program where we share our learning with Cambodian teachers in a sustainable learning community.
“The project is currently, to our knowledge, the only project in the country training teachers in the government system to be mentors to their peers – and this is what makes it unique.”
SeeBeyondBorders has the full approval and support of the Ministry of Education Youth and Sport in Cambodia at national, provincial and district levels.
“There are also non-teaching aspects to what we do,” Kate said. “We support infrastructure development in our ‘Better Schools’ program – addressing sanitation in schools, accommodation for teachers at remote schools, school repairs and building new schools.
“Our ‘Better Access’ program makes sure the kids actually get to school, and stay healthy enough to learn, with good nutrition and basic health programs.”