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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pressure of poverty; pressure for success

Pressure of poverty; pressure for success

July is the month of exam cheating: systematic, unashamed and pervading down to the

youngest of pupils. Soly Vannpok and Chhun Phaveng talk with Khmer

academics, teachers, pupils and parents. 

A CROWD of people throng around a photocopier in a shack outside a school, copying

answers for their sisters and brothers inside doing examinations.

They throw the answers wrapped in rocks through open windows.

Everyone is paying and everyone seems to be on the take: students pay teachers; relatives

pay police to turn a blind eye.

Students must pass these exams to graduate. In the hope for knowledge and eventually

a well-paid job the pressure is intense. In many cases, their families have sacrificed

much for them to get this far.

Chhay Yiheang, a doctorate professor at Phnom Penh University and teacher since the

1960's, said: "Teachers and staff in Cambodia have descended into corruption

and [what I call] a fresh demonstration as a result of low salaries. They come to

work late and leave early.

"I have sympathy for teachers who have studied a long time but earn less than

uneducated construction workers. They are jealous because MP's salaries could fill

the trunk of a car.

"I have never seen teachers' spirits as low as they are this year.

"The quality of [Cambodian] education is not recognized as being [equal to]

UN standards. The quality of education should be addressed by people with power,

otherwise Cambodia will sink and be destroyed by other cultures.

"[But] I am not a pessimist. I have some hope that things will change as society

changes. Students must study hard in every subject."

Yiheang said that the quality of education depended on the quality of teachers, but

if teachers were not paid well they would not work hard.

"Reform needs to be taken up by people who can separate knowledge and science

from their own feelings. If we can form a group of people who respect logic, philosophy,

psychology and science... if we wake up and start now, our country can develop and

be rebuilt."

He described a recent anecdote of an exam controller being struck unconscious by

a candidate after the controller tried to withdraw the candidate's cribbed answers

during an exam.

"Students always ask supervisors to turn a blind eye and have pity... [but]

they will also collect money to bribe exam supervisors. If the supervisor does not

agree to take money, he or she is threatened with violence. Which way do teachers

choose? Security and money? Or blood on the head and no money?

"Corruption! A person taking a bribe, a person with power who knows the truth

but does not care about [it].

"It seems unjust that [Education] Minister Tol Lah can withdraw [cribbed] documents

from candidates in a certain school while in other schools candidates can still copy

documents [without punishment]."

Min Kim Lun, director of Toul Tom Poung High School, said: "It is true that

the living standard of teachers are very, very difficult.

"Their salaries are only 50,000 riel per month but they have to pay at least

60,000 riel for food alone. Poor teachers must have at least one other job. The second

job makes them ignore research and planning for students' lessons.

"So we hear that teachers pressure their students to study in their private

classes after school to make money. Some teachers try to make money driving moto-taxis,

planting rice and vegetables, sewing or as security guards.

"I think our government is still poor and we don't want to claim our highest

aim, but if the salaries were $100 a month it would be enough to live and teachers

would teach well."

However, Kim Lun said that despite low salaries, some teachers did "give the

students knowledge and wisdom, and did it not just for the money".

Dam Soeun, director of Chaktomuk Junior High School, said: "If you want to mention

the quality of education, silence is better... Most students don't study hard. When

they go from school they never learn, just want to play."

"I hope when teachers get higher salaries that education will improve."

Bun Sary, vice director of Ounalorm Pagoda primary school, said: "While the

stomach is empty the ears are deaf."

In general, Sary said, when the standard of living was low, professional ideals become


"But the Ministry of Education let primary teachers take money from their students

before the classes are finished. Public schools teach for just four hours, allowing

teachers to take private classes at 100 riel per pupil," he said.

Sary said generally teachers did not want to take private courses because it lowered

their "prestige... but [they do so] because of their empty stomachs."

Parents generally seem pragmatic rather than bitter about the system, though they

realize it is less than adequate. For many, their own economic positions mirror that

of the teachers who are charged with educating their children.

However, some parents are being forced to take their children out of schools because

it is too expensive. In these situations, it is the poor, and the female students,

who suffer most.

Sourn Sitha, 37, a motor taxi driver with ten children, eight of whom are in the

school, said: "Teachers have to take private classes because they get only 60,000

riel per month. Their salaries are so low, so I think that if they exploit or cheat

money from students it is just to feed themselves and their families.

"I've asked my children and they say teachers take private classes during normal

public school hours. In one day I have to give 600 riel to each of my children.

"My children say if they don't study in private they will not be able to answer

well and will be beaten or blamed by the teachers.

"Now, I'd rather my children help me by selling something but I'm afraid it

will hurt their studies. Last year I let them sell cakes or pick up plastics or empty

tins to sell... but the result of their studies were so poor," said Sitha.

Ten-year-old Sourn Sereivoth, who studies in the third grade of Yamabiko primary

school said :"I give my teacher 200 riel every day for private classes. The

private class starts from 7am to 9am. From 9am to 11am I study in the public hours.

"My teacher used to punish me by making me knock the brick ten times if I did

not go to [private] study because I had no money to pay for [private] lessons,"

Sereivoth said.

Mich Chan Thol, 13, from Tuol Kork primary school, said he was afraid to go to his

class sometimes because he did not have the 100 riel fee for a private lesson.

"The master of the class always collects money but I can never afford it. I

am very hungry and the 400 riel my mother gives me I pay for food.

"I am afraid of my teacher and I never understand the lesson, so I escape from

school many times. My mother believes I go to school everyday but in fact I do not."

Kim Sat, 37, a wine factory worker in Tuol Kork said "I have three children.

I pity them but I'm so poor and I'm not able to let my eldest daughter study any

more. I have to make her work with me."

Mich Chan Thy is fifteen years old, and she works in the same factory as her mother.

She is an ex-student at Toul Kork primary school who was always one of the brightest

of her class. Her mother, however, had to take her away from school.

"I hoped one day I would work in an office, any office, using my high knowledge

and so I could one day wear pretty clothes.

"But everything is just a dream."

Despite this, the government says that "the RCG accords the highest priority

to revitalizing the education system" and that "significant progress has

been achieved in financing and implementing initial investment plans, improving textbook

provision, revitalizing teacher training and strengthening educational institutions

and systems for a market economy.

"As an essential 'safety-net' for this sector, teacher salaries have been increased.

"However, much more needs to be done to upgrade the quality and depth of education.

Private sector initiative has risen to meet the vast demand for improvement in language

and computer skills... New investors, particularly in the garment and services sub-sectors

are also providing in-house training for their own employees."

The RCG asked aid donors earlier this week in Tokyo for $91m to finance education

intiatives for the next five years.



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