Reflections from an Eye-opening Cambodian Experience

James Neill- Trustee for SeeBeyondBorders UK recently spent time in Cambodia learning about the work being done on the ground in Cambodia. Read more about his experience in this blog written by James below

Sitting and enjoying another coffee at New Leaf Eatery (a social enterprise cafe here in Siem Reap) has given me a chance to reflect on my past 10 days visiting the SeeBeyondBorders team in Siem Reap and Battambang. It was back in December 2020 when I first had a conversation with Ed Shuttleworth, the Co-Founder of SeeBeyondBorders. I had responded to an advert for a new Trustee position in the UK, and Ed kindly arranged for a call so I could hear more about both the challenges that the Cambodian education sector faces and the impact that SeeBeyondBorders has made since 2009. Despite the challenging history of Cambodia, Ed described the amazing transformations that SeeBeyondBorders was creating to support rebuilding the education system. It was that one call with Ed that really inspired me to support their ongoing work.

As a Trustee based far away from Cambodia, it’s always difficult to fully connect and completely understand the work the team is doing on the ground and, by extension, to identify how we as Trustees can offer support. Meeting almost all 30 employees in Cambodia and visiting schools to see the work in action has been both eye-opening and motivating.

The mean years of schooling for a Cambodian child is 5.1 years. With the many challenges that face Cambodians on a daily basis- and with a need to prioritise supporting your family first- I can understand why this is the case. For me, the strongest memories I have from school, link to the teachers that inspired and motivated me to learn and improve.

It was teachers like Professor Ger Graus and Paul Nevens during my time at Taverham High School that inspired me to enter the teaching profession – I will always be grateful for the support (and challenges!) they gave me. I hadn’t considered what it must have been like for a generation of Cambodians that may not have had a teacher as a role model, although talking to many of the SeeBeyondBorders team, their inspiration to be an educator was often linked to a role-model in their lives. Visiting one of the primary schools in Battambang province, clearly showed the impact that SeeBeyondBorders is having to help develop the skills of primary teachers, that will undoubtedly become the role models for the next generation of teachers.

Observing a Grade 1 class, students composed in Khmer their own creative writing stories about their school day experience. They enthusiastically raised their hands to read their stories out loud and share their work with fellow classmates. Back in the UK, this form of creative writing is normal in classrooms, however in a Cambodian classroom- this is something more unique. The enthusiasm the students had, and the pride on each students face to eagerly read out something they had created themselves, was something truly memorable for me.

Listening to these students read out loud to their teacher really showed the impact that the literacy programme has had in this community. I remember seeing the pride on parent’s faces during a video produced during the Literacy Inspire Event- and this was wonderful to witness in person. As educators we all value the importance of parental engagement and developing the quality of teaching from a systemic approach, this was clearly evident as a core deliverable by the SeeBeyondBorders team.

The Educational Changemaker Graduate Programme is a project that really impacted me. Introduced in 2020, this is a two year programme to support Cambodian women to develop the skills needed to take up a leadership role in education. It is well documented that we need and would benefit from more women in leadership roles, especially within education. The impact of the programme is clear, with some of the first cohort now fully employed with SeeBeyondBorders and linked to schools where they actively mentor and support the classroom teachers and school principals to get maximum benefit from the projects being implemented. Other graduates are now employed in leadership roles across Cambodia, a real testament to the impact and success of the programme.

I had the opportunity to meet the current (second cohort) of the Educational Changemakers during my visit to the Battambang office. Their passion to be an active part of the change needed in the education system was really powerful to see. Being part of an organisation that is actively helping to break down the gender divide across Cambodia is really inspiring, and shows what really is possible when teams collaborate and find solutions to challenges!

The Leadership team of SeeBeyondBorders is clearly committed not just to #changebeginswitheducation but to develop an organisation with a positive culture that incubates trust and ability to adapt to the evolving needs within Cambodia. For example, in January a new programme is launching in Siem Reap schools that will bring together all the learnings from the past decade, along with the addition of “Community of Practice Centres” where teachers and school leaders can come together for workshops and collaboration – building on good practice learnt from around the world but adapting it to the local context.

So, what next? I had never heard of Battambang before starting my journey with SeeBeyondBorders. Having spent a week there, and fallen in love with the landscape, the food and the people, it was no surprise that The Guardian recently ran an article showcasing the local food specialities! There is no better time or sense of urgency to ensure the next generation of Cambodians children have the best education possible.

So what next….. Fundraising is always critical to the success of any charity, and as the UK Board of Trustees we are always looking for individuals or organisations to support the work in Cambodia. If this is something that interests you, please reach out to us directly at

The team in Cambodia are busy preparing for on-boarding their new schools in the Siem Reap province, as well as crunching some new and powerful data that shows the huge impact on learning their programmes have had. Keep up to date with SeeBeyondBorders updated through our Social Media channels and sign up to our Newsletter.

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