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Early education key to prosperity

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Students exit a primary school in Phnom Penh. According to the ILO, 29.8 per cent of Cambodians aged 15 to 24 did not complete the primary level in 2008. Photograph: Nina Loacker/Phnom Penh Post

Hong seems like a normal seven-year-old. On the street outside his home in Phnom Penh he eats ice-cream and plays tag with his friends.

But unlike his friends, Hong does not go to school any more. He dropped out of first grade after his mother told him to do so because they didn’t have enough money. He says he regrets it and wants to study, but if his parents tell him to do so, he will. He is too little and depends on his parents, he says.

Hong is not a unique case in the region of a young person without primary school education. According to the 2012 Education For All Global Monitoring Report, published last month, one in 12 young people in East Asia and the Pacific fail to complete primary school and lack skills for work.

More than 28 million people aged 15 to 24 in the region have not completed primary school. The report shows that young people need the skills taught in primary and lower secondary school for decent jobs, but due to their lack of education they need alternative pathways to get the skills necessary for employment and future prosperity.  

“While the region has made remarkable progress in helping children now of primary school age enroll in school, it must not forget its young people who missed out on that chance when they were growing up,” said Pauline Rose, director of the EFA Global Monitoring Report. “First and foremost, these young people must be given another chance to learn basic skills such as reading, and skills in relevant trades. Only then can they fulfill their potential and achieve their aspirations.”

According to the 2010 Labour and Social Trends in Cambodia report published by the National Institute of Statistics with the support of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 29.8 per cent of Cambodians aged 15 to 24 did not complete the primary level of education in 2008. But the situation has seen improvement, with the proportion of young people who did not complete the primary level decreasing from 53.7 per cent in 1998. Svay Savong is a young Cambodian who started Savong’s School near Siem Reap, providing free language education to rural children.

“Because their families are very poor, they cannot support their children to go to school,” he says, adding that some parents lack the education themselves to know how important education is for their children. He says children are sent to the cities to work at the age of 13 or 15, or the parents ask them to work in the rice fields.

“So the children don’t go to school so that is a big problem for them in the future,” he says.

According to the EFA report, the most in need in both rural and urban areas are women. Seventy per cent of young women in rural Cambodia lack skills learned at lower secondary school.

Thirty-five-year-old Sa Lim dropped out of school in seventh grade and came to Phnom Penh to become a tuk tuk driver. He says he could neither find a better job nor does he have the money to study.

The EFA report says less educated young people in low income countries, unable to afford to wait for the right kind of job, are at the greatest risk of being in low-paid work.

In Cambodia, 91 per cent of young people with no education work below the poverty line, compared with less than 67 per cent of young people with secondary education, the report says.

According to the report, young people in poorer countries take jobs providing them with poverty line wages. In Cambodia, more than 80 per cent of young people having only primary education and two thirds of young people having secondary education earn less than US$1.25 per day. Cambodia is also among the countries where working below the poverty line is a more widespread phenomenon than not working at all, the report says.

But even for young Cambodians with high-level education it can be hard to find employment.

Twenty-four-year old San Rachana just graduated from university with a major in banking and finance but says her and her friends who graduated have difficulties finding a job.  

“Most of them are still looking for jobs, like me,” she says, adding that for now she works as an English teacher.

According to Sophorn Tun, national coordinator of the ILO in Cambodia, there is a significant gap between labour market demand and the skills available.

“With an estimate of 300,000 young people entering the labour market every year, Cambodia requires technical skills to prepare the labour force for the opportunities that will come with the economic growth,” he says.

“However, the current educational institutions and curricula often do not match market demands and the needs and standards of the private sector.” He says the young workforce should possess a mix of good technical and soft skills as there is a growing demand from employers for workers with a mix of these skills. “But the demands are largely unmet,” he says. “Young job seekers usually take whatever the very first job available to them without caring much for it to meet their education or qualification.”

The EFA Global Monitoring Report is developed annually by an independent team and published by UNESCO. The 2012 report focuses on youth and skills, putting education at work.

Tuk tuk driver Sa Lim makes about $10 to $15 US per day. He says he wants to support his daughter. She studies in 3rd grade and he does not want her to drop out of school, as he did.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anne Renzenbrink at anne.renzenbrink@phnompenhpost.com
Sen David contributed to this report and can be contacted at david.sen@phnompenhpost.com

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