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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Dropout rates mar Cambodia's MDG quest for 'education for all'

Dropout rates mar Cambodia's MDG quest for 'education for all'


In attempting to achieve the Millennium Development Goal for education, officials cope with the challenges of hard-to-reach children and a system widely perceived to be ineffective. This is the first in a four-part series on Cambodia's MDGs. 

Photo by: AFP 

Cambodian girls gather in the slum near Phnom Penh's Boeng Kak lake earlier this month. Convincing parents that they should invest in their daughters'education in one of the main challenges to attaining gender parity, education officials say.


Last year marked the midway point for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, benchmarks for developing countries established in 2000 that cover everything from poverty to environmental sustainability. Last year also marked the five-year anniversary of the adoption of Cambodia's Millennium Development Goals, the localised versions of the global goals. In a four-part series, the Post looks at the progress made and the challenges that remain in achieving targets set for 2010 and 2015, drawing on government data as well as interviews with officials, NGO workers and Cambodians who stand to benefit from the effort. Part One looks at the goals for education and women's empowerment. 

ADAM Maream, a 14-year-old eighth-grader at Chaktomuk Secondary School, has already completed as many years of education as her mother did, and she is poised to go even further. Several factors have worked in her favour, not least of which being that her school, like many in Phnom Penh, has more resources than those in the provinces, including trained teachers, up-to-date textbooks and clean toilets.

But her experience has not been perfect. For instance, she estimated in a recent interview that she pays between 30,000 and 40,000 riel (roughly US$7.25 and $9.75) each month in "informal fees" collected by teachers for supplies - such as lesson paper and pens - that are supposed to be free.

"If I don't buy them, I will get a low score or I will not pass the exam, even though I am an outstanding student," she said last week, sitting in the school courtyard with a group of friends who nodded their agreement.

Adam Maream's mixed experience at Chaktomuk mirrors the uneven track record of the Cambodian education system as a whole as it works towards the Millennium Development Goal pertaining to education. Asked recently to assess the system's progress since the goal was adopted in 2003, government officials and NGO heads used adjectives including "encouraging", "improving", "slow", "incremental", "difficult" and "discouraging", often in quick succession.

All of these assessments are borne out by recent data, which paint a picture of a system at markedly different stages of development depending on the particular target - there are 10 under the goal - being evaluated.

The disconnect between enrolment and literacy offers a prime example: Cambodia was included among 63 countries reported to have achieved or nearly achieved universal primary enrolment in the 2008 Education for All (EFA) report published by Unesco. But it was also listed among the worst-performing countries with regard to literacy and was deemed at "serious risk" of not meeting the universal literacy target set for 2015. Cambodia was one of just five countries, and the only non-African country, to be included on both lists.

Education for all

Nearly everyone interviewed for this article pointed to enrolment gains as the most significant achievement made in the past five years.   

"Today is the time of education for all," said Minister of Education Im Sethy.

One target under the goal calls for net primary school enrolment to reach 100 percent in 2010, starting from a base of 81 percent in 2001. The 2005 benchmark was 96 percent male enrolment and 94 percent female enrolment. Cambodia fell just short, achieving 93 percent and 90.7 percent enrolment, respectively, according to Ministry of Planning figures. Total net enrolment in the 2007-08 school year reached 93.3 percent, according to figures from the Ministry of Education.  

Ang Sopha, national researcher at NGO Education Partnership (NEP), a networking organisation that facilitates communication between the government and education NGOs, said she expected primary enrolment to continue climbing slightly more than one percent each year, reaching 98 or 99 percent in 2015.

But several experts noted that primary-school-age children who had not yet enrolled despite recent recruitment efforts would likely be the most difficult to reach.

Unesco Country Director Teruo Jinnai said the remaining unenrolled students include ethnic minorities, children in migrating families and  members of other marginalised groups.

"Today, to get another two percent - well, where are they? They are in very difficult circumstances," he said, "and the government is really concerned".  

The survival question

Photo by:

Adam Maream (right), a 14-year-old student at Phnom Penh's Chaktomuk

Secondary School, says she wants to finish high school and go on to

university. Experts warn that Cambodia may not meet its MDG for

education, which includes gender parity targets.


Total students

Total female students


Students grades 7-12


Female students, 7-12

Total teachers

Total female teachers
1999 value


2005 goal
2005 estimate

2015 goal


2001 value


2005 goal


2005 estimate

2015 goal



2001 value


2005 goal


2005 estimate


2015 goal



While enrolment gains are commendable, the bigger problem facing the government seems to lie not in getting students to come to school but rather in keeping them there. Perhaps the most distressing trend documented by the 2005 Ministry of Planning report on education indicators was that the "survival", or retention, rate for grades one through nine had actually dropped from 33 percent in 2001 to 29.3 percent, falling far short of the 2005 target of 52 percent.

Ang Sopha said data recorded for the 2006-07 school year indicated a three-percent increase in the survival rate since 2005. She noted that the rate was higher than 50 percent for grades one through six but fell off sharply once students entered secondary school.

Leng Theavy, NEP's education and capacity building officer, said this trend is likely a function of parents concluding that children can better serve their families by working rather than by becoming educated adults.

"Parents don't understand the importance of education, and they don't see any immediate gains from it," she said.

Speaking of the survival rate generally, Jinnai said students drop out for "the same reasons they weren't in school a decade ago", including the fact that the education system is widely perceived to be ineffective.

The EFA report found that the average primary school pupil-to-teacher ratio in Cambodia was 53:1, making Cambodia one of only four countries outside sub-Saharan Africa to have more than 40 students in the average classroom, along with Mauritania, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Inadequate teacher compensation is another major contributor to poor learning environments, several experts said.

The "informal fees" Adam Maream described are the result of low salaries, according to a 2008 report prepared by NEP on "teacher motivation and morale". Citing research finding that Cambodian teachers receive a base salary of between $30 and $60 per month, the report states that many believe the pay they receive "is inadequate, not just because it fails to reflect the work that they do, but because it is not enough to support basic daily living".

A teacher at Chaktomuk Secondary School who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss teacher pay, said teachers there earned "less than $100", which led them to collect informal fees.

In rural provinces, where students are not able to pay informal fees, teachers are more likely to take on second jobs, said Judy Baldwin, NEP's management adviser. The NEP report found that 93 percent of teachers surveyed said they had second jobs that, in many cases, detracted from the amount of time they could devote to lesson planning.

The gender question

These obstacles aside, Adam Maream said she hopes to finish high school and attend university, though she said her ability to do so would depend largely on her grandmother's willingness to support her.

Her father was shot and killed in a robbery when she was five, and her mother died of cancer when she was 12.

She said her grandmother's views on the importance of education are likely influenced by the fact that she grew up in a time when women's education was less valued than it is today.

Adam Maream's mother, she said, had been encouraged to "just stay at home and cook".

Convincing parents that they should invest in their daughters' education is central to attaining gender parity through grade nine, one of the benchmarks under the education goal, Leng Theavy said.

The EFA report found that, as in other areas, Cambodia's performance in this regard had been mixed: It was included among countries that seemed likely to achieve gender parity in primary education by 2015 but also among countries at risk of not achieving it in secondary education by 2015 or even 2025.  

Women's rights experts noted that gender parity in education would do much to facilitate the meeting of the third Millennium Development Goal: to promote gender equality and empower women.

Chan Kunthea, coordinator of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics, said educated women are much more likely to assume leadership roles and run for office.

Uneducated women, she said, "cannot talk and are not confident in themselves".

Minster of Women's Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi said educated women are more likely to pursue high-powered jobs, contributing to a sense of economic empowerment that can improve how they are treated - for example, by lowering the nationwide incidence of domestic violence.

Adam Maream's own evolving career plans offer insight into how this process works: When she entered school, she said, she wanted to become a fashion designer. But her exposure to mathematics, on top of her family's seemingly endless struggle with limited financial resources, has fuelled her desire to use her university degree, assuming she gets it, to go into banking.

"I think that job is suitable for me," she said, "and I can get a high salary".




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