Global vision for renewal

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Miranda Fettes talks to a man who is sowing the seeds of change among children to halt Third World deprivation and bring about a better tomorrow

Thousands of parents across Scotland pay to send their children to private schools. In such a context, the notion of a school which pays children to attend seems absurd. However, that is exactly what happens at a school in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Its founder, Alan Scott-Moncrieff, 39, who grew up in Haddington in East Lothian and Traquair in the Borders, is not a teacher.

He is an artist, theatre director and film producer who has travelled extensively. His last experience of schooling was as a pupil at Peebles High. Why, then, the leap into education?

His journeys around the world inspired him to set up The Global Child, a non-profit organisation established to create 10 schools in 10 years across 10 developing, war-torn countries. The school in Cambodia has been operating for a year and is the first fruit of his dream to provide spirited street children with real alternatives in life and hope for the future.

"It's about taking smart kids off the street in war-torn countries," says Mr Scott-Moncrieff. "I've always been intrigued by these street kids and the power of their spirit. They're so resilient. It's the human spirit boiled down to its most vibrant form. Wherever I've been, I've seen this potential.

"They're already the lowest class citizen, so there's no expectations of them. They've often suffered sexual abuse or domestic abuse. Under normal circumstances, these children would have no opportunity of a formal comprehensive education."

All his first school's pupils are selected from the streets of Phnom Penh.

Before The Global Child came along, they lived either in the open, on a vast rubbish dump, in the red light district or in primitive shelters made of sticks. Many were orphaned or supporting a parent dying from Aids and all were vulnerable to disease, malnutrition, crime and abuse.

Mr Scott-Moncrieff's aspiration is greater than simply saving some children, however; he hopes to save a nation. He believes the poverty and hopelessness into which Cambodia has spiralled since the genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, which wiped out two-thirds of its population, can only be stopped by its own people. The seeds of change, he believes, have to be sown in the youngest generation to reverse widespread poverty, corruption, crime and disease.

"I take kids who will be able to help Cambodia," says Mr Scott-Moncrieff.

"I pick kids who are charismatic and intelligent. I look for that special spark and drive.

"Education is the foundation for everything, for all change. It's the tool by which progress is manifested."

Life expectancy at the Stung Mean Chey landfill site in Phnom Penh, which many Global Child pupils once called home, is 35, he says. "For most kids, by the time they're 15 their parents are already dead. Cambodia has the highest rate of HIVAids per head in Asia."

"When you take a country and kill two-thirds of its people and anybody educated is killed, you revert to year zero.

"The gene pool has had a serious blow and we're looking for kids who have been born smart."

Mr Scott-Moncrieff set up his inaugural school with a budget of $5,000 (Pounds 2,800). He picked 25 children aged between 7 and 16 and hired nine full-time and three part-time staff. The school also welcomes volunteer teachers from the United States and Europe. The pupils are paid $1 a day to attend. "The only way to get these kids off the street is to offer some kind of financial subsidy," he says.

So why start in Cambodia? After all, Mr Scott-Moncrieff has also travelled and worked in Nepal, China, Tibet and Mexico, to name but a few countries.

"Because it was the most difficult country," he says emphatically. "The war with Vietnam only ended in 1998. They lost two-thirds of their people. I knew that if I could create a school there I could do it anywhere."

The average age in Cambodia is 19 and most live below the poverty line.

There is a critical lack of basic education and skills and a need for "wholesome tourism" and non-exploitative foreign investment, Mr Scott-Moncrieff says.

"Without positive intervention, the cycle of poverty and hopelessness may never change.

"Most foreign businesses exploit Cambodians' need for work by offering the minimum in salary, knowing there is an endless supply of replacements if employees choose to quit.

"All schools are fee-paying, which means that an education is a privilege and a sacrifice of valuable earnings."

For a Buddhist country, there are many contradictions, none greater than that between pacifism and violence, Mr Scott-Moncrieff says. "It's one of the most violent cultures I've ever seen but there is this great dichotomy.

The genocide reverted the country to a peasant way of thinking. To them, as a culture, 12 does not constitute a child, so it's attractive for paedophiles. Some of them (the children) have been sold by their families for a night. We've had to work with them, counsel them."

Mr Scott-Moncrieff claims that the Cambodian education system is corrupt to the core. "Teachers rely on extortion just to survive, giving pupils copies of test papers in advance in return for payment," he says. "Most teachers are only paid $25 a month, while $40 a month is the breadline."

The Global Child teachers are fluent in both Khmer (Cambodian) and English and are given professional development and behavioural management training.

They are paid well but not too well, says Mr Scott-Moncrieff, so as not to upset the local economy.

One prospective teacher asked: "How long is the commitment?" "A lifetime," he replied.

The children are taught Khmer, English, maths, world geography, history, social and cultural studies, computing, debating, creative arts and karate.

Buddhist monks visit the school twice a week to teach ethics and manners.

The school operates six days a week, with a cultural outing, games and music on Saturdays.

A cafe on the ground floor of the school building raises revenue from tourists. There is also a shop selling The Global Child merchandise and crafts produced by indigenous artists and school pupils. The objective is for each Global Child school to become a "largely self-funding entity that is minimally reliant on outside sources of financial sponsorship".

All pupils, regardless of age, begin in the first grade, moving into the second grade after six months. Thereafter, classes incorporate a progressive, learn-teach method of education, where second grade pupils teach first graders for one session of each day. Not only does this enable pupils to refresh what they have been taught but, Mr Scott-Moncrieff believes, it helps to build rapport between different groups, fostering a community spirit.

Classes are aimed at the highest achievers, not dumbed down for the least capable. "We believe that children rise to a challenge. Boredom kills desire for knowledge."

High on Mr Scott-Moncrieff's agenda is the development of a sense of social conscience and values in the children. Community service is compulsory for them all.

"Each child must perform one charitable act for a neighbour each week and not accept monetary compensation," he explains. The three-pronged aim of this requirement is to teach pupils to give something back while impressing upon the local community the goodwill of the school and, perhaps ambitiously, to groom the children for a future in "selflessly assisting their country via a humanitarian outlook".

Ultimately, he says: "It's teaching philanthropy."

When they graduate, The Global Child is committed to helping pupils find either sponsorship to go to university or "wholesome employment". Practical classes in construction, mechanics, finance, tourism, arts and crafts will be provided for those wishing to go straight into jobs.

In January, Mr Scott-Moncrieff hopes to replicate his success of Phnom Penh in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Meanwhile, Sharon Tao, a Canadian teacher and humanitarian worker, plans to take the Global Child blueprint to Rwanda and create a school. Mr Scott-Moncrieff then has plans for Burma, South America, Africa and Eastern Europe.

"Essentially, The Global Child will become a non-profit franchise," says its founder, "but Cambodia will always be my school."

He adds: "Without breaking the perpetual cycle (of poverty combined with a lack of education and prospects), a country like Cambodia will never change.

"I'm not going to change Cambodia in the next year, but maybe in 20 years these kids will go out and help their country and implement change. With careful guidance, they will play a major role in the restoration of their country. That's how you create restoration, with compassion and opportunity.

"Maybe one of them will go on to become a Cambodian Gandhi."

www.theglobalchild.orgTo donate or volunteer as a teacher, e-mail

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