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Cambodian schools aim for the stars

A simple approach to monitoring water, sanitation and hygiene standards is triggering action

Schools can help children to develop healthy habits that last a lifetime. Education authorities in Cambodia want the country’s 4.8 million school-aged children to have this chance. With support from the Regional Fit for School Program, Cambodian schools are using the Three Star Approach to measure their progress towards national water, sanitation and hygiene standards.

Last year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Royal Government of Cambodia was grappling with how to re-open schools after a prolonged lockdown. The country had successfully navigated the first six months of the pandemic, registering fewer than 300 positive cases and no fatalities. Intent on keeping infections low once students and teachers returned to their classrooms, education officials saw that gaps in availability and access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services could undermine prospects for a safe re-opening. How could schools do their part to prevent the spread of infections if they didn’t have access to functioning handwashing facilities, water, and soap?

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The stars told the story

What was needed was a way to rapidly identify and ‘level up’ the schools whose access to WASH services lagged far behind national standards. The School Health Department, a division of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, knew just where to look: since 2018 it had been systematically monitoring compliance with national WASH standards for schools using a star-rating system known as the Three Star Approach. By filtering its dataset, the department could see exactly which public schools had zero ‘stars’ in the category of handwashing (meaning that no handwashing facilities were available) and which were at the one-star level (basic handwashing facilities, but not enough to accommodate group handwashing). The stars told the story: these were the schools which required urgent attention.

Presented with this evidence, Cambodia’s Ministry of Economy and Finance approved special funding to support the construction of handwashing facilities at the zero-star schools. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) followed suit, providing funding to education departments in five provinces to support one-star schools to upgrade their handwashing facilities. As in the Philippines and other countries where it has been introduced, the Three Star Approach had once again demonstrated the power of systematic monitoring to catalyse improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene services in schools.

Essential elements of a healthy and effective learning environment

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on the still sizable gaps in access to safe drinking water, functional toilets, and handwashing facilities at schools around the world.  According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) on Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene, 287 million children attend schools which use water from an unimproved source, such as an unprotected well or river, or have no water source at all. A further 367 million go to schools which have no sanitation facilities or only unimproved sanitation facilities, and 462 million visit schools with no handwashing facilities at all. 

In Cambodia, the proportion of schools without these services is higher than the global average: in 2019, according to the same JMP dataset, 27% of Cambodian schools had no water service, 38% had no sanitation service and 47% had no hygiene service.

‘What gets monitored gets done’

Since the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – particularly SDG6 (clean water and sanitation), but also SDG 3 (good health and well-being), SDG4 (quality education), and SDG5 (gender equality) – the attention being paid to WASH in schools has risen markedly. 

At the global level the JMP leads efforts to monitor progress towards SDG targets, using a ‘service ladder’ approach to classify schools according to the level of WASH services they provide (advanced, limited, basic or no service). National governments report annually against these targets, setting their own national WASH standards for schools and monitoring progress towards them. 

‘Monitoring and evaluation systems drive action,’ explains Bella Monse, senior advisor with the Regional Fit for School Program, which is implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in partnership with the South-East Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) on behalf of BMZ. ‘It’s often said that “what gets monitored gets done,”’ she continues. ‘Our experience has shown this to be true.’ 

Monitoring WASH standards
Monitoring WASH standards

The Regional Fit for School Program works closely with ministries of education in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines to implement and monitor strategies designed to incentivise sustainable improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene in schools. The Three Star Approach is one such strategy. Developed in 2013 as a joint effort between UNICEF and GIZ, and first introduced in the Philippines through the Department of Education, the Three Star Approach is a national benchmarking system which helps schools to bridge the gap between currently existing WASH services and national standards based on SDG-linked global targets. 

How the Three Star Approach works in Cambodia

The Three Star Approach officially came to Cambodia in 2016, when it was adopted by Cambodia’s Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport as part of the newly-endorsed Minimum Requirements for WASH in Schools. Using a simple checklist which is distributed alongside the annual school census, school directors assess their WASH infrastructure across four categories – drinking water, latrines, handwashing, and environment and safety – with reference to specific criteria which need to be met to earn one, two or three stars. Using the results from the four categories, they then calculate a star level for the school as a whole. 

The star levels for each category are set in such a way that schools should be able to achieve one star with their own resources (e.g. by using the regular school operating budget) or with minimal additional investment. In relation to latrines, for example, a school earns one star if it has at least one functional and clean latrine for boys and one for girls.

By providing clear guidance on what is needed to move to the next level, the Three Star Approach motivates schools to improve their performance. To move beyond one star, schools may require external support from local government, businesses, community groups, parent associations or development partners. To earn two stars in the category of latrines, for example, a school needs to have more than one latrine for boys and for girls, as well as one which is accessible for students with disabilities. This might require expanding existing toilet blocks, adding a ramp and widening doors.

Everyone’s job: Regular maintenance, daily routines and broad participation

Although schools need to have basic WASH facilities in order to earn stars, the Three Star Approach deliberately avoids expensive infrastructure requirements. According to Alexander Winkscha, the Fit for School Program’s regional coordinator for Cambodia, what is needed most is practical action: ‘We focus on promoting effective school-based management of WASH services, no matter what the level. Schools that have WASH infrastructure need to think about systems for keeping it clean and operational. Schools that don’t have infrastructure can think about how to establish it, and take some low-cost first steps in that direction,’ he explains. A good starting point is setting up daily routines and schedules which involve the whole school community, and integrating high-impact, low-resource activities – such as group handwashing – into daily routines. Tum Romdual, a teacher at the Ang Phnom Touch Primary School in Kampot Province, describes how this works at her school:

District education officials have an important role to play in helping schools to learn from one another, adds Alexander Winkscha. ‘Schools have amassed valuable experiences when it comes to designing simple improvement measures and mobilising funding for bigger projects, such as digging wells, procuring drinking water filters for classrooms, or setting up pre-fabricated group hand-washing stations.’ The Fit for School Program works to develop the capacity of district education officers not just to inspect schools, but to support them in their improvement journeys. 

A school-by-school picture of WASH in Cambodia 

In the latest round of national monitoring for which results are available (2019-2020), 9,287 schools submitted their Three Star results to the education authorities. This represents more than 70% of all public schools in the country. More than two in five schools (42%) had earned one star; 29% were two-star schools, and 2% had earned three stars. More than one quarter (27%) of schools had not earned any stars. Among the 8,801 schools which had also submitted data the previous school year (2018-2019), nearly one third (31%) had improved their star level. The greatest improvements were seen in the areas of water service and handwashing.

This overview of the state of WASH services in schools is valuable for tracking broad changes over time. However, the power of the data also lies in their usefulness for steering decision-making and prioritising investments – just as was done during the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Three Star results can be disaggregated by province, district, type of school and category of WASH service, and easily visualised in charts, diagrams and maps. This opens up important new opportunities for provincial and district education authorities – whose responsibilities are growing as a result of a decentralisation process currently underway in the Cambodian education sector – to analyse and compare WASH services among the schools for which they are responsible.

The journey has only just begun

The Three Star Approach is now solidly anchored in Cambodia, and the data it generates are being drawn upon at a high level, including by development partners such as the European Union as part of the budget support framework for the education sector.

The focus for the coming years will be on making Three Star results transparent and accessible to the schools which generate the data in the first place. In the Philippines, the Fit for School Program has worked closely with the Department of Education to do just this. Together, they have developed innovative ways to acknowledge and reward good performance and to share monitoring data with decision makers (e.g. via online dashboards) and with the public (e.g. annual reports).

In Cambodia the Fit for School Program is working with the School Health Department to develop annual ‘report cards’ for schools. These will include a formal certificate indicating the school’s star level which can be framed and displayed, as well as guidance on what the school can do to improve its WASH services even further.  If this effort proves successful, it may inspire other attempts to ‘close the feedback loop’ between educational authorities and the schools they are responsible for. Monitoring data can drive change – but only when it is used, shared and acted upon.

Karen Birdsall
March 2021

Additional Information:

© GIZ/Seng Thy
© GIZ/Seng Thy
© GIZ/Seng Thy
© GIZ/Seng Thy
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