Irena Barker interviews Ashley Irving, Principal of Australian Centre for Education (ACE), Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Australian Ashley Irving first travelled to Cambodia in a bid to reduce his tax bill. Thinking he would stay several days to attend a Tesol conference he could then log as a business expense, he was offered a job and stayed. Many might have thought it was a risky move. But Irving, who had given up a career in finance to become an English language teacher some years before, had a suspicion it might pay off. Five years later, he has fallen in love with the country and plans to eventually retire there.
His lanky 6ft 4in frame makes him a curiosity in his home city of Phnom Penh and he has made many friends with locals who treat him as one of their own. But before his retirement days, Irving, 54, has the task of running the biggest language school in the country as ELT in Cambodia booms. In his five years as principal of the Australian Centre for Education, he has seen pupil numbers rise from an already vast 7,000 in 2012 to 16,500 today. There are now 430 staff on the books as well, including 100 Cambodian and 130 expats.
When he first started, there was only a handful of Cambodian teachers, but a “dramatic increase” in the standard of English among homegrown staff – who now typically arrive with an Ielts score of around 7.5 – means they are an attractive proposition for teaching at the lower levels of the school. The numbers of students dwarf anything he saw teaching English back home in Australia, where a 400-pupil school is deemed to be doing well. ‘The growth here in five years has been phenomenal… I didn’t expect that boom at all, I had no idea that English was so popular here, the growth every year is quite extraordinary’, he says. The rush to learn English, and the high value placed on education, he says, has its roots in the genocide of the 1970s, when dictator Pol Pot in particular targeted educated people. Now, people in this small nation of 15 million people, where garment factory workers expect to earn around $1,000 a year, see English as a stepping stone to a higher standard of living.
Irving explains: ‘When I came here, I really didn’t know what to expect, but what I’ve seen is a massive drive for people to improve themselves, it’s been identified as a way to a better life… there’s a rush… people are trying to get ahead and English is seen as one of the things that will help them achieve their longterm goals’. This rush for education has been boosted, he says, by some of the policies brought in by Hang Chuon Naron, the minister of education, youth and sport, who, among other things, has worked to eradicate cheating and corruption in final exams. ‘In the past you would turn up with the answers or buy them at the front door’ Irving says.
He has focused on teacher training, and on what different industries in the country need in terms of skills’, he adds. For the middle and upper class families who can afford the fees, the ACE operates as a complete language ‘hub’ catering for all age groups. Operating out of four centres in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap it offers language tuition, Ielts, corporate training and testing, and there is an ‘embryonic’ school of teacher education, offering Celta qualifications. The school also has a quarterly in-house magazine and runs a public speaking and debating club. To create a sense of community in such a large school, where students attend only part-time, there is a long list of social events, including Christmas celebrations, a Khmer New Year Party and student graduations. Beyond the paying public though, the school is also becoming increasingly involved in Cambodian education more widely. As part of a project funded by the Japanese grants body the Nippon Foundation, teachers from the school have helped to re-write the English language textbooks used in years 7 to 9 of state schools. Irving says he ‘would love’ to develop a role for the school in training teachers in the provinces too. ‘That appeals to me that we are creating opportunities for Cambodians to become students in somewhere like Australia, come back to Cambodia to senior jobs in industry and government and start making their way. ‘We all believe we’ve got an obligation to contribute to Cambodian society and in education.’
Despite this, he says that although ‘profit is clearly a driver’ for the school – it’s parent company IDP Education is listed on the Australian stock exchange. So any philanthropic contribution also helps ‘cement’ its profile as a provider of English language. Irving believes that the school operates with few direct competitors in Cambodia, and says he is keen for that not to breed any complacency. And it has proved refreshing to be a big fish in a small pond. While back home in Australia in language school management, a meeting with the local mayor would have been the height of glamour. Irving now rubs shoulders with influential figures in the world of politics, including the Cambodian education minister himself. ‘I had no idea I would get such a wide range of opportunities, it’s quite staggering’, he says. And opportunities there are. Outside of a packed work schedule, which includes three or four evening functions a week, the divorcee enjoys the good food and low prices. It has been easy to make friends with locals as well as expats, he says. The only thing he regrets – and one suspects it is not really a regret – is that the heat makes it difficult to exercise outdoors. ‘It’s not recommended for fitness fanatics’, he says. And has he now paid that tax bill that first led him to Cambodia? ‘Yes, the Australian government is all very happy with me now’, he adds with a laugh.
Ashley Irving, Principal of Australian Centre for Education (ACE), Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Pic courtesy 1: Phalinn Ooi
Pic courtesy 2: Alan Flora Botting