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A teacher explains educational exercises at a school in Preah Sihanouk province in December
A teacher explains educational exercises at a school in Preah Sihanouk province in December. High enrolment rates and teacher shortages are seen as major hurdles in Cambodia’s education sector. Hong Menea

Enrolment just a start: report

Cambodia may be close to providing universal primary school education, but filling seats doesn’t necessarily equate with learning.

“It is not enough just to send children to school; when they are there, they must learn,” said UNESCO education specialist Santosh Khatri at a launch yesterday of the organisation’s monitoring report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality Education for All.

Educators and policymakers at the launch were adamant that while the Kingdom’s 97 per cent net primary school enrolment rate is impressive, enrolment figures don’t tell the whole story.

“In Cambodia, the access to education is good, but quality education remains a challenge,” said Nath Bunroeun, Education Ministry secretary of state.

According to the report, a quarter of students worldwide are unable to read a single sentence. And in Cambodia, “only 30-40 per cent of primary school students can read,” according to Chhinh Sitha, a graduate researcher at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

“It is concerning that children are going to school but not learning,” said Sitha.

Educators yesterday linked Cambodia’s obstacle in providing quality education with its shortage of both textbooks and teachers. With just one teacher to every 48.5 students, Cambodia has the highest teacher-student ratio of any country outside the African continent.

“After studying global education quality we advise governments around the world, including Cambodia, to implement four strategies to provide the best teachers,” said Anne Lemaistre, UNESCO country director.

The strategies include actively hiring motivated and qualified teachers, strengthening teacher training, matching the best teachers with the most disadvantaged students and providing incentives to retain teachers.

“Recruiting enough teachers is still a very big challenge in Cambodia. In order to fix this, we must increase the education budget to award proper salaries and maintain highly capable teachers,” Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron said.

UNESCO recommends governments spend a minimum of 20 per cent of the national budget on education, and while Cambodia increased the Ministry of Education’s budget to $335 million this year, the sum falls shy of even 10 per cent of the national budget.

“In Cambodia, teachers’ salaries don’t cover basic food costs,” said Santosh.

At the beginning of this year, the government raised the average minimum wage for teachers from $80 a month to $100, which educators say is still not enough.

In addition to incrementally increasing teacher salaries, the government hopes to give the nation’s brightest more qualified instructors. By 2020, the Ministry of Education plans to increase the minimum teacher training from nine years basic schooling plus two years teacher training at provincial centres to 12 years basic education and four years of teacher training.

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Dr. Ly's picture

I agree with the Minister that the education budget be increased, but now that the national budget has been set, I hope he can use his economic skills to find creative ways to increase teacher salaries rather than waiting for another 5 years.
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One way I have done is using donor fund to increase in-service training stipends for teachers because donors prefer their funds be used for training rather than salaries. The teachers stopped complaining, and it didn't matter what the money was called. In addition to training, performance-based rewards can motivate teachers to improve quality. Without the rewards, teachers may not apply what they learn from the training.
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I also agree with the UNESCO country director's 4 strategies, but one might wonder whether the best students should get the worst teachers if "the best teachers" are assigned to "the most disadvantaged students." I think the word "best" needs to be clarified. In the U.S., there are teaching specialties such as gifted education, special education, reading education, math education, etc. Although inclusive education is still a debate, gifted students and special education students need different kinds of teachers. And if reading is a major issue for children, teachers need more/better training in teaching reading. Also, school and community libraries can be tapped into.

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