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A hard lesson in arithmetic

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When Reaksmey (not his real name) was in high school two years ago, he and his classmates were urged to attend the supplementary classes taught by their teachers before and after regular school hours.

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For an hour before school and two to three hours after each day, students paid teachers by the hour to attend.  And while not stated in so many words, students knew attendance was all but compulsory if they intended to succeed.

“The teachers added more marks for students who took extra lessons if they only needed 10 or 20 more marks to pass the exam,” he said. “Most of the questions that appeared for exams also came from the exercises set during extra lessons.”

His younger sister, 14, now in grade eight at his alma mater, spends about 100,000 riel (US$25) per month for the extra lessons she attends for five subjects. She cited similar motivations for attending – preferential treatment from her teachers and guaranteed top-ups for exam results.

“Extra classes have become common throughout the country and everyone hears about it,” said chairman of Bridges Across Borders’ education technical team Sovoeurn Sou, who agreed that the classes are “more or less compulsory”.

Though the lessons have long been a feature of the public school system, teachers interviewed still declined to be named for fear of reflecting poorly on their schools.

“The teachers need more money, so they force the children to study,” an English teacher at a high school in Sen Sok commune summed up.  

Less than 10 per cent of Cambodia’s state budget for 2012 has been set aside for education – US$251 million out of $2.7 billion. Public school teachers’ salaries are correspondingly low. The average salary of a secondary school teacher is $80 to $90 a month, while the better-qualified high school teachers take home closer to US$150.

One hour of extra lessons per student earned teachers about 1000 riel, teachers interviewed said, and with a class of at least 30 students attending one hour a day, teachers teaching one subject can earn an extra $45 a week. Most teach two subjects.

Students attended extra lessons for three to four subjects a day, one hour per subject, and forked out about $6 a week for the privilege, teachers and students said.

The means of ensuring that their students turn up for extra study sessions, as per Reaksmey’s and his sister’s experien-ces, are subtle but effective.

Teachers deduct from the grades of those who do not attend, said the English teacher, and humiliate them by asking them questions they do not know how to answer.

“The teacher, for examination, will put the very difficult question. The one who has gone to extra classes will know the answer. The one who does not go will not know the answer.”

The pressure of being forced to attend these classes can in itself be detrimental to students’ well-being, said Sovoeurn Sou.

“It affects students’ mindset that the teacher is teaching them to do things through force,” he said.

In addition to emotional trauma and lower grades, a more troubling issue is the ineffective use of curriculum time in an education system already plagued with subpar material and standards.

One CARE staffer, who also declined to be named, said teachers often save their best material and efforts for the extra sessions to compel students to attend. “This is harmful for students, especially for those who are still young. It takes a lot of energy to study for extra hours,” she said.

The practice starts young indeed, with students in primary school forced to stay back for one hour and the numbers gradually increasing to about four hours in high school. While these supplementary lessons for secondary and high school students have long been around, it was only in the past five years or so that primary school students were also included, said a mathematics teacher at a Chamkarmon district high school.

Bouy Bunna, consultant at the Ministry of Education, refused to comment on the practice directly, only saying that the ministry did not have a policy of teachers forcing students to pay for extra lessons.

However, he added that teachers and students can make arrangements outside of school hours if students need extra lessons. “The teachers cannot force the students to give them money for extra lesson, but if the students want to learn more ... they can give the money to their teachers.”

School principals are also aware of the practice, with the mathematics teacher saying that his school’s principal allows teachers to conduct their extra lessons on school grounds.

Parents, for the most part, are resigned to the practice, teachers say, as they are aware of the low salaries teachers receive.

However, students from poorer families are sometimes put at a disadvantage, when teachers refuse to allow those who cannot pay to attend the classes, said the CARE staffer.

According to the English teacher, forcing extra lessons on students is not a practice that sits well with his colleagues.

“The teachers themselves do not want to do it. They say, ‘If I had more salary, I would stop’,” he said with a shrug.

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