Some of these schoolgirls may not be wearing their uniforms much longer. One child in nine quits school in each grade through primary school, and one in five quits in each year of lower secondary.
t 11am on a recent weekday, Daun Penh district in Phnom Penh is filled with the
excited chatter of children as they spill out of a school playground in a messy,
Schoolchildren in neat blue-and-white uniforms, clutching text books, are a common
sight. Across Cambodia, primary school enrolment rates are now the highest in the
region, according to the 2006 World Bank poverty report.
But despite the increase in enrolment, poverty and systemic corruption throughout
the education system are causing a worrying number of children to drop out of school
too early to benefit from instruction, education officials told the Post.
"Dropout rates in Cambodia are the hot point for my association," said
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teacher's Association (CITA).
"If we look at children aged between 13 and 15, only 26 percent attend school,
so 74 percent of children of this age have no access to schooling. This is a very
serious problem for Cambodian society; if education cannot develop, a country cannot
According to 2005-2006 education statistics compiled by the Ministry of Education,
Youth and Sport the average dropout rate for grades 1 to 6 (primary school) is 11.4
percent per year. For grades 7 to 9 (lower secondary) this jumps to 21.4 percent
per year, and for grades 10 to 12 (upper secondary) 17.8 percent.
"If students drop out of school under grade 3 they will be ignorant and illiterate,"
said Pok Than, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport.
"But if they manage to finish grade 3 then they will be able to read and write."
The ministry could not provide an aggregate of this data, but the UNDP estimated
in its June report that 65.5 percent of students leave before completing lower secondary
school, grades 7 to 9.
"Dropouts are caused by many things," said Than. "Some families are
poor and cannot afford for their children even to start lessons, some allow their
children to start school but then stop them studying as they need the children to
The economic importance of child labour for poverty stricken families is a core factor
in explaining why such children drop out. In the short term, a working child can
bring more benefit to family life than a child receiving an education.
"The poverty of the student's family forces them to abandon their studies,"
said Chhun. "Students' parents do make them go to work, do make them finish
their studies early so they can earn money. Children drop out of school to help their
But it is not just the loss of the child's earnings which serves as a deterrent for
an education. According to experts, lack of funding for teachers' salaries has lead
to widespread corruption at all levels of the school system and has driven the price
of an education beyond the reach of many of Cambodia's children. The average salary
for teachers in Cambodia is $40 a month.
"Teachers taking money from students is also another key reason causing children
to drop out of schools," said Than.
It has become an accepted norm for teachers to charge children for their schooling,
said a teacher at a Toul Kork primary school, who declined to be named.
"As a general rule teachers ask students to give them money - 200 riel - to
attend lessons each day," she said.
But there have been reports that informal and corrupt fees can be much higher. Teachers
have been known to reserve part of the curriculum for teaching in private fee-charging
lessons outside school hours. Students who do not attend the private lessons are
likely to fail end-of-year exams and be unable to move up through the school grades.
Chhun said the underlying cause of these extra charges - and consequently their role
in increasing Cambodia's drop out rates - is the fact that teacher's salaries are
too low for them to survive without demanding these extra fees.
"A salary is like oil for a motorbike, it makes things work faster and smoother,"
he said. "Salary increases would help drop out rates as teachers wouldn't have
to charge for extra lessons. When they don't have a salary the teachers are not focused
on work, they are worrying about how they will live."
The realities of the Cambodian education system mean that most teachers, even if
committed and enthusiastic, are struggling to make ends meet on a very low civil
servant salary and hence often have little option but to charge for the services.
"Teachers feel very bad demanding money from students, we really don't want
to ask for money in this way," said the Toul Kork teacher. "But if we don't,
how can we make sure our own family survives?"
Teachers make an effort to identify and assist, rather than charge, poorer students,
she said, as they know that they would otherwise drop out of school.
"Teachers only charge the students whose parents are able to support them,"
she said. "If the teachers know that the children are poor, they will not charge
this money and they will often try and support these children - for example giving
them books and pencils to help them study."
The Ministry of Education is aware of the problem of teacher corruption and has taken
steps to prevent teachers charging students for lessons.
"The Ministry has recently issued a letter asking that teachers stop taking
money from students," said Than. "Also, the ministry has begun awarding
scholarships to poor families, especially to poor girls, because more female students
stop their studies."
But in terms addressing the root of the matter - low teachers salaries - the Ministry
has yet to take action.
"Teacher's salaries are low, the salaries of ordinary Ministry of Education
staff are low," said Chhun. "That is an obstacle for the effective implementation
of the policies of the Ministry of Education."
Increasing teachers' salaries would lead to an improvement in the quality of education
in Cambodia, said Chhun.
"If we could eliminate corruption, stop power politics in the Ministry of Education,
raise teacher salaries, then the quality of education would automatically improve,"
he said. "For example, teachers would be able to afford to study more themselves.
The way to uphold and improve education is the salaries of civil servants, especially
Raising teachers salaries is particularly important in light of the fact that for
many children, their parents will not only be unable to afford education, but unable
to understand the long term benefits which will accrue from schooling.
"Families know that, in theory, if their children finish education they will
get a higher salary, will get a good job," said Chhun. "But they have not
ever seen these long term benefits materialise."
The Ministry of Education is seeking to overcome both the econonic barriers and encourage
parents to see the value of educating their children.
"Our study last year showed that only 9 percent of students who have scholorships
from the Ministry of Education drop out of school," said Than. "Hence the
Ministry wants to expand and develop its scholorship program."
Taking action to combat Cambodia's high drop out rates is imperative if the Cambodian
government is to meet its Millennium Development Goals - one of which is ensuring
access to primary schooling for all. Currently too many of Cambodia's young people,
such as Mon Sophoan, 28, who sells ice in Chroy Chang Va, are unable to access the
education which is their right.
"I started school in grade 1 when I was thirteen but I stopped studying in grade
2 because we were having problems in the family and I needed to work," she said.
"I feel very sorry to be a human being with no education, with no knowledge
- I am not jealous of those who have an education, but I regret very deeply that
it was not possible for me to study."