Like many children in Cambodia, Puthea* learned from a young age that good grades don’t come cheap.
Before leaving for school, the grade 3 student collects lunch money from his mother along with a bribe he pays to his teacher in exchange for what should be a free education.
This has been part of his daily routine for almost half of his life.
“When I get to school, the teacher comes to the table to collect the money,” which amounts to 1,000 riel, or about $0.25, from each student, Puthea, aged 9, said earlier this week.
He explained that with the exception of students whose families are impoverished and financially supported by local NGOs, all of his classmates are required to pay the daily fee.
If they forget the payment or can’t afford it one day, “they can owe it and pay it tomorrow”, he said.
While the government is this week celebrating the success of sweeping reforms to the grade 12 national exam, interviews with students, parents and teachers have revealed that state primary and secondary schools are continuing to teach youngsters that an education is bought through bribes.
For Puthea, the off-the-books payments don’t stop at daily “tea money”.
“We have to pay between 4,000 riel and 5,000 riel for the school electricity every month … [and] sometimes, the teachers raise money from us to mend the toilets,” he said.
Puthea’s mother, 37-year-old Kunthear, said an additional monthly payment is expected when students are sent home with their record books, which contain their latest grades.
Kunthear said the money, which she places inside of her son’s graded book before sending it back to school, is a “gift” to the teacher, and the amount she offers increases in line with how well Puthea scores.
“If my son gets a good grade, such as 10th in the class, I offer $1 to the teacher. The richer families would offer more than this amount.”
When asked why they don’t refuse to pay the bribes, both mother and son looked confused.
“I only know to pay money,” Puthea said.
After considering the question for a moment, his mother added: “Other parents offer money to the teacher, so if we don’t do the same, we are afraid that it might upset the teacher and the teacher might not pay attention to our children.”
Denied an education
The cash isn’t always easy to come by for Puthea’s family, who rent a small run-down property in Phnom Penh’s Srah Chak commune.
“We have little money ourselves,” said Kunthear, who stays at home to look after her younger children, while her husband, the family’s sole breadwinner, earns a meagre wage as a civil servant.
When his parents are unable to foot the bill for their two school-age children, Puthea says nervously that he prefers not to go to class.
“I feel reluctant to go in.… I’m scared of the teacher, because today I’ll have to say, ‘Sorry teacher, I have no money’,” he said. “People in my class would tease me and say ‘Why don’t you have money today?’”
Like Puthea, many families interviewed by the Post said that bribes often stopped their children from going to school.
Twenty-nine-year-old Srey Mao said she pulled her son, now age 7, out of school after less than six months because she couldn’t afford the mounting costs.
“I suspended my son’s study half a year into grade 1 because I couldn’t afford the fees when my husband fell ill and had to stop working,” Mao said earlier this week, while her son sat on his own behind her, listening intently.
Mao said that her son was expected to pay a bribe of 1,000 riel for every half-day of lessons in addition to extra payments when grades were released. And, she went on to say, the quality of teaching left much to be desired.
“When children are studying at a public school, the teachers don’t pay attention to them,” she claimed. “Sending children to school is just letting them [teachers] extort money from the children.”
In Puthea’s class, the brightest students and those with the best handwriting are expected to lead the lessons, while the teacher watches on from the sidelines.
Pupils from three separate Phnom Penh state primary and secondary schools echoed the claims of bribery, corruption and poor practice.
All said that they were expected to pay 1,000 to 3,000 riel for a morning or afternoon’s study, and most simply accepted that such payments came hand in hand with a “free education”.
“Everyone pays her [the teacher], so I pay, too,” said one 11-year-old student.
Bribe to survive
Teachers this week said unsanctioned payments from their pupils were a vital source of income within a profession many described as chronically underpaid.
“Our pay is very low, sometimes even less than garment workers,” said a teacher from Phnom Penh’s Kolab Primary School, where Puthea and other pupils interviewed for this story are enrolled.
“My salary is only 600,000 riel [about $146] a month, so we have to find other ways of making money,” added the teacher, who refused to give her name.
Teachers from the capital’s Hun Sen Bun Rany Wat Phnom High School, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed that their wages of between $150 and $200 a month were not enough to live on without the daily cash from students.
While relaxing in the school grounds during a lunch break this week, they claimed that twice-daily payments collected from students – which can amount to as much as $120 a week – are acts of charity, not bribery.
“We don’t force them to pay, because it’s a state school and it’s free for students, but some students see their teachers are poor and can’t even afford a motorbike, so it’s an act of kindness from them,” one maths teacher said, adding that taking money from her pupils is just one of many ways she is forced to subsidise her income.
While public school students are technically on holiday until October, the teachers said they had no choice but to organise additional lessons, charging $12 for a three-month course in a single subject.
Some pupils interviewed said paid vacation courses at their schools were not optional.
Uk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA), acknowledged that many public school teachers take bribes from their students.
“We don’t want to see students paying bribes to teachers, because it affects teachers’ reputations,” but “they are forced to take a little money from their students because the government has not provided them with enough salary”, she said.
The government itself is well aware of issues that stem from low pay in the sector.
A Teacher Policy Action Plan, released by the Ministry of Education in January, notes that “teachers currently earn salaries that are only 60 per cent of what other professions with similar education and skills qualifications in the private sector” earn.
The low wages in turn mean that the sector fails to attract highly qualified candidates, with “more than 80 per cent” of people signing up for Teacher Training Courses carrying grades of only D or E from the national exam that the government is now fervently trying to reform.
“Teaching is simply not seen as a viable and rewarding career option for the best students,” it says.
Reforms to the national exam, which has traditionally been plagued with answer-selling and bribery, have been widely lauded by government officials and anti-corruption campaigners.
About 56 per cent of applicants passed the test – a requirement for those hoping to enrol in a four-year university – up from 26 per cent when the reforms were introduced last year.
But despite the obvious successes, many of the parents and students interviewed this week hit out at the reforms, which they said had done nothing to reduce corruption in any other areas of the education system.
After being taught from pre-school that education is synonymous with bribery, parents said demanding that grade 12 students earn their results was a lesson too late.
“Why do they still exploit money from small students?” asked Mao, who doesn’t know when she will be able to afford to send her son back to school.
“They have to start at a low level if they want to make change, they shouldn’t start at the top level.”
Chhayavy of CITA agreed.
“If we want reform, we should start from pre-school and primary school up to higher education,” she said. “The most important thing is to increase teachers’ salaries.”
According to Chhayavy, a lack of reforms to the entire education system will leave graduates “in danger, because they won’t have the basic quality of education needed to compete with people from neighbouring countries”.
Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron and the ministry’s spokesman, Ros Salin, didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment for this story.
Om Yentieng, president of the Anti-Corruption Unit, which has helped to implement reforms to the national exam, said no action has been taken on bribery within state schools because no official complaints have been filed. “If there is an official complaint about teachers taking bribes, we will investigate,” he said.
But, he added, the “ACU has no authority to interfere in the reforms of any government ministry”.
“It’s up to the ministry to do that itself,” he said.
The ministry’s Teacher Policy Action Plan lays out a number of goals aimed at improving the sector, ranging from improving salaries and benefits, to training inspectors and introducing comprehensive guidelines for teachers. “Immediate, bold intervention in the short-term is critical,” it notes.
In the meantime, families are left worrying where the next day’s payments will come from and the lessons the so-called “tradition” of bribes is teaching their children.
“Rich people or people who can afford it send their kids to private schools, but we don’t have enough money,” said Kunthear. “The exams have shown a good improvement, but what about the quality of our schools?
“Public schools are no good.”
*Pseudonyms have been used for Puthea and his mother to protect their identities