ACE (Act, Change, Educate) | The Happy School

Our Story

The Happy School was initially established as a local community initiative in Phnom Penh, in response to the large number of children who simply couldn’t afford to go to school. This basic education ‘outreach project’, as it was known, was run by three monks and a teacher and school director, named Men Sovan, without any real resources and set up on borrowed land. Its single classroom was made up of plastic tables and chairs on a dirt floor, covered by a tarpaulin roof. But despite the lack of facilities, it was still a place for underprivileged children to gain fundamental literacy and numeracy skills. In January 2003, a small number of foreigners were asked to help out by teaching the students English and Art for a few hours a week. When they turned up for work one day in April, they found that the school had blown away in a storm.

Determined to re-build, the volunteers wrote to family and friends in Australia and Ireland asking for help. Their friends responded by holding fundraisers and eventually, raised enough money to build a storm-proof classroom and cover the school’s operational costs for the next 18 months. The classroom was christened ‘The Happy School’ and opened for business on the 15th of June 2003. It was a place for Cambodian children, who otherwise would have most likely missed out on a basic education, to play and learn in a safe, colourful and supportive environment. From this initial effort to rebuild the School ACE (originally Australians for Cambodian Education) was born, and together with committed staff from the School and the ACE Board, many hundreds of children have fulfilled their right to learn and play in a safe environment.

Sticks to Bricks Campaign

Filmed in 2003, ‘The Sticks to Bricks’ campaign was launched to raise funds to build the original Happy School building and support the ongoing education of its students. Thanks to Craig Boord at Streamline Media for his wonderful work.

The Happy School Story

Filmed with love and thanks in 2013, by ACE Member and all round production genius, Chris Patterson (view his details here).

Core School Programs

Since 2004 ACE has been providing core education programs, made up of two non-formal Education teaching classes in Grades 1 to 3 and Grades 4 to 6. The curriculum includes literacy and numeracy, Khmer language, Math, Science, and Hygiene, as well as the following programs:


This program, set in a physical space, has increased the number of books and resources in The Happy School library and offers workshops in remedial reading for students of all ages. Often students like to sit in here during lunchtime to read their favourite books.


English is crucial for many aspects of business and employment in Cambodia, including the tourism and service sectors. General English is offered to students as a complement to their core studies. A specialised employment-focused English course has also been developed for students exiting the School into vocational training.


Happy Talk/Happy Share has evolved into a computer skills training class, available to all students including the Vocational Training and Life Skills students. It provides essential skills for students to navigate their way through a digital world and for use in future studies and career paths.


Offers students the chance to learn traditional Khmer dance as well as contemporary styles such as hip hop. Volunteer teachers have been a great support to the dance program over the years, and performances have been held at Rice Day celebrations.


ACE provides funding for secondary school scholarships for students in Grade 6 and above, after graduating from Happy School. The annual scholarship amount includes uniforms, books and stationery. Without this support students would be unable to continue their studies to higher levels.


A healthy breakfast is offered every day to all students with the aim of improving concentration in class, attendance and general well-being. Research shows that poorer students often come to school without adequate nutritional intake, hampering their ability to concentrate throughout the day.


Held every quarter, on rice day each student’s family receives 25kg of rice to help supplement family income and act as an incentive to improve student attendance. The day is a wonderful opportunity for the School to open its doors to the community, to celebrate the student’s creative and academic achievements, and show support to families who may be suffering from food insecurity.


Life Skills Training is an initiative based on the long-term Happy School goal, that all students should pathway into further education or employment. The Life Skills training aims to equip students with core skills around work readiness, career planning and communication. This program trains students to pathway into the Vocational Training program, helping to kick off their careers and working lives.


Following on from Life Skills Training, the Vocational Training Program seeks to connect students who aren’t continuing with state school education with vocational training programs or traineeships. The end goal is sustainable employment. A partnership with the Intercontinental Hotel offers Life Skills graduates a six month hospitality traineeship at the Hotel, which if successful will lead to full time employment. ACE and the CBF Board are currently seeking further opportunities in diverse industries for more student traineeship placements.


The Happy School and ACE are proud partners of Happy Football Cambodia Australia (HFCA), a not-for-profit organisation that supports young Cambodians out of poverty through the medium of football. Since 2008, one of the School’s best football players is selected to join the Cambodian team to play in the annual Homeless World Cup. This program provides life-changing opportunities through sport and has allowed lucky students, who have never left their country before, to experience the wonder of travel. Past destinations have included Australia, Italy, Brazil, France, Mexico, Poland and Chile.

School Board

The Happy School is managed by a local non-government organisation (NGO) called Children for Better Future (CBF). The CBF Board was established in 2009 to ensure that community-focused activities are developed, implemented and managed appropriately and to provide a strong governance structure and managerial support to the School. CBF is registered with the government authorities and benefits from a wide range of networks within the NGO and private sector in Cambodia. Board members are volunteers and are there to make sure that the School has a clear strategy; policies around staff employment and delivery of quality education is implemented correctly; and that the School is compliant with laws and regulations.

The CBF Board of Directors brings a wealth of experience to the Happy School: international and national educational management knowledge, community development skills and experience, business acumen and knowledge of tax and labour laws. Currently, CBF has six Board members: two Australians and four Khmer nationals, who each provide their time voluntarily. CBF is proud to have such a diverse range of expertise and is always amazed by the commitment and hard work of these unpaid professionals. Where two of the four members are currently women, increasing female representation in order to bring gender parity to the Board is an important and realistic goal within the near future.

Children for Better Future Board members

Sim Lomy: Chair Board
Pen Kimsan: Member
Tith Nita: Treasurer
Pel Martin: Member
Phon Kaknika: Member
Lucy Gray: Member
Kirk Gibson: Member

School Staff

The following staff members are all Cambodian nationals and keep the School running efficiently, safely and with a passion for education:

Eang Saroeun: School Director
Eang Saroeun began as School Director in 2014. Married with one son, he graduated from the Royal University of Phnom Penh with a Masters of Education degree. Prior to this posting, he was the Program Manager for Connected Schools for a few years. In his own words: “Now, I am very delighted to work with Children for Better Future Board and for the Happy School project. I believe that there is only education that can change children for a better future. That is why Happy School gathers disadvantaged children to access free education. I look forward to seeing a strong partnership with teachers, students, parents, guardians, and have authority to deliver a good quality of education service, in a warm and friendly learning environment which helps students to become active, confident and well-mannered. Finally, I will use the budget cost effectively, as needed for the children’s future, so that our wonderful donors will feel happy to keep supporting us.”

Morn Met: Life Skill Coordinator
Vann Mayoklin: Admin/Fin Officer
Keat Sokleap: Head Teacher
Chhun Sarom: Teacher grade 3&4
Reth Bunthan: Teacher grade 2
Kim Sopheak: Computer Teacher
Kung Doeun: Adm Assistant / Security Guard
Chem Heang: Night Security Guard
Pen Ban: Part Time Teacher grade 1
Soeung Molika: Part Time Teacher grade 1

Stories from Facebook

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