Changes are afoot in Cambodia’s much-maligned state education sector. Can a dynamic, reform-minded minister bring the system up to speed?
By Daniel Besant
Cambodia’s state education system has come a long way. According to 2012 government figures, 70% of 15- to 24-year-olds completed primary education, compared to only 25% of those aged more than 65.
However, despite relative successes, dropout rates remain high. “The rising opportunity cost for education – the income children forego in order to attend school – as well as seasonal migration within Cambodia and across its borders, mean that the dropout rate in primary rises to more than 15% in some provinces,” said Denise Shepherd-Johnson, chief of communication for Unicef.
Poor households find that they must make a difficult choice between the opportunity costs from lost employment when their children attend school and pulling their children out to help with domestic tasks, in the rice fields or in the general labour market. “This is particularly true at lower secondary school level,” said Kurt Bredenberg, senior technical adviser at NGO Kampuchean Action for Primary Education. “This is when the value of children’s labour is much higher.”
With low salaries for state teachers – the majority earn less than $150 a month – those entrusted with the education of the Kingdom’s youth are forced to supplement their income. A large number of teachers collect small amounts of money – about $0.25 – from each student every day. To squeeze even more out of pupils, some teachers only teach part of the syllabus and then offer private classes for the remainder of the course. And until recently, come exam time, the answers were available for a fee.
This has had a devastating knock-on effect on the country, according to Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia. “This high level of acceptance of cheating at exams… reflects the widespread corruption in all sectors of society,” he said. “When tolerating this, we are sending a blunt message to Cambodian youth – that cheating and engaging in corruption is normal and can take you further than hard work and merit.”
But things may well be changing. A few years ago, it was not uncommon to see adults throwing rocks into Cambodian state school classrooms as Grade 12 students took their exams. This was no attempt to disrupt the tests: those launching the missiles were concerned parents and the rocks were wrapped in cheat sheets.
In order to combat this phenomenon, armed police set up perimeters around schools – although that did not stop widespread cheating. Poorly paid teachers sold answers, and lax security enabled students to bring smartphones and cheat sheets into test centres. Pass rates inevitably soared, reaching 87% last year.
This year, however, things were very different. The pass rate dropped to less than 25%. Thousands of volunteers were recruited to search students thoroughly before they took exams. Transgressors were threatened with prison if caught with illicit pieces of paper. Exam questions themselves were prepared in secrecy under strict instructions and tight security at the Ministry of Education. The minister of education, youth and sport, Hang Chuon Naron himself, wrote some of the papers.
“The top priority was the safety of the questions. Before, there were leakages of the exam questions,” he told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper before the tests. “To eliminate this, we decided that only the top officials should be responsible for the exams. So I am responsible for the questions on history and Khmer language, plus English and French.”
Since taking up the post in September 2013, the minister has been turning heads with his drive to tackle the problems in Cambodia’s education sector. “His reform initiative has so far been highly successful in winning strong support from a wide range of stakeholders including NGOs, donors, communities and parents,” said Bredenberg.
The tightening of exam procedures has won particular praise. “It was an excellent decision to make a radical break and address challenges in the management of exams in the past,” said Shepherd-Johnson. “The reform was very well executed and has meant that there is a now a strong premium on the value of learning.”
However, despite this hard-headed approach, the government seems to have some sympathy for the nearly 75% of Grade 12 students who failed to get a high school diploma. In August, when it became clear that pass rates would be low, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that a retest of the exams would be held this month. A good move, according to Bredenberg. “The decision to re-administer the exams gives students a chance to really study their subjects and not expect to be passed [due to giving] bribes to invigilators and other government bureaucrats as per the past practice.”
Along with the tightening of exam procedures, the number of subjects has been cut and the curriculum streamlined. Previously, students were required to study ten subjects. This has now been pruned to seven, with six core subjects and one foreign language, either English or French.
Added to this, last month teachers’ salaries were raised. Minimum per-month wage packets will increase in steps until they top out at $138 in April. The best-paid teachers will get even more. “The highest salary will be KHR1,667,000 [$410],” the Cambodia Daily reported Hun Sen as saying. “But please understand each other: We cannot increase yet. We need to have more discussions.”
The raises “could potentially change the deeply engrained culture of corruption”, said Preap Kol. “It’s important to get a reality check and form a baseline from which concrete reforms can be undertaken for further improvements in the whole education system.”
Pay rises and overhauling exams are one thing, tackling a deeply ingrained culture where there is a lack of accountability from top to bottom is another.
According to Bredenberg, large projects funded by development banks have provided computer labs, science labs, new infrastructure and many other investments, only to find that they are not utilised by teachers. Teachers focus on their private classes where they can raise their incomes significantly, showing little interest in the new facilities. School directors exert little or no pressure on teachers to use these facilities and provincial offices of education in turn exert little or no pressure on school directors. “There will need to be strong systems in place to prevent teachers from moving away from the higher priority that they currently place on tutoring private classes than their regular teaching,” said Bredenberg.
It is widely accepted that, in Cambodia, not much changes unless there is a will from on high. In terms of reforming the education sector, it seems that the man in charge has a mind to continue with the changes. Responding to critics of the stringent new exam procedures, Hang Chuon Naron told the Phnom Penh Post: “They have to look at the future of the country and not be driven by the short-sighted, short-term implications. The future of the country depends on the future of human resources – no country can develop without that.”
With the exam situation addressed, the focus moves to getting students into secondary education – and keeping them there. Currently, the number of children accessing lower-secondary education hovers at about 53%. In the words of Shepherd-Johnson: “The minister’s reforms will be critical if the country is to meet its aspiration of becoming a middle-income country with a skilled workforce.”
“The next level” – The region’s tertiary education sector has received an ‘A’ for effort in recent decades and, while there is certainly room for improvement, the future looks even brighter