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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Village school welcomed, but only a start

Village school welcomed, but only a start

Village school welcomed, but only a start

D onn Viet Village- Most of the 1,600 members of this Kompong Chhang riverside

village, about 30 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh, celebrated last month the

opening of the first school the village has had in nearly 25 years.

For

years, the village has made do with the informal educational system known

throughout the country as "The people who know more teach the people who know

less," according to Education Minister Tol Lah who opened the

school.

Although the school in Donn Viet, with its five government-paid

schoolteachers and a basic curriculum of reading, arithmetic, drawing and

science, marks a vast improvement over the situation existing over the last two

decades, the school isn't going to solve the educational problems. even in this

small village, Tol Lah said. The school's five classrooms can accomodate only

the first three grades, or about half the school-age children in the village.

After passing grade three, children must go upriver to Kampong Chhnang to

another school.

In a country where education is valued more highly where

it is compulsory, the village might use its school more effectively by adding

double shifts, with younger children attending in the morning, and older ones in

the afternoon. But double sessions haven't caught on in Cambodia, apparently

with the teachers, Tol Lah said. "That would solve the problem. But I don't dare

suggest it," he said.

For more than a year since he became minister of

education, Tol Lah has been lobbying to improve education in a country where he

says not one but two generations of teachers have been lost. In the last two

years, he says, "about 5,000 classrooms have been repaired or built. We need ten

times that."

He said Cambodian children are receiving 2,000 to 3,000

hours of education, or the equivalent of a fourth or fifth grade education. "The

international standard to go on to secondary school is 7,000 to 9,000

hours."

Nor are teachers properly trained. Cambodia lost a generation of

teachers to the Khmer Rouge, and the generation that followed, while working

hard against long odds since 1980 to improve things, hasn't much to offer.

"Thirty percent of these primary school teachers did not complete eighth grade,"

he said. "But you cannot kick them out."

He is scornful of the level of

government spending on education. "Eight percent of the national budget is for

education. Japan spent nearly all of its budget on education after World War II.

Should I wait five years for the economy to grow before I conduct a reform of

education? The kids cannot wait," he said.

Tol Lah is relying on

international help. Last Dec 7, he presented a plan for a $150 million education

reform plan to international donors, asking for help.

Aid organizations

have rebuilt several dozen schools in the past few years. The Donn Viet school

shows, said a UNICEF official, that aid can be found when the motivation is

strong enough. The school was built largely through the fundraising efforts of

Sam Borin, who was born in Donn Viet in 1954 and got his early education there

before the old school was destroyed.

Sam Borin, who works as a General

Assembly liason for the Asia Foundation in Phnom Penh, said he began fundraising

when villagers approached him about two years ago. "The people in the village

saw the disaster in education. They were so unhappy. The district people refused

to send teachersbecause there was no school," said Sam.

Sam said the

villagers had formed a construction committee and were attempting to raise more

money by asking families to pledge 2,000 riel per month. After a few months it

became clear they were going to need more. UNICEF agreed to provide about

$6,000; some individual US donors put in $3,000 and the World Food Program

"paid" school builders in food.

The total cost was about $30,000, much

higher than the average, because of extraordinary concrete foundation work

required by the village's location on a steep hillside.

Sam said: "I am

the only person from my village (still alive) to have an education," he said. "I

am so proud."

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