Cambodia is within striking distance of its 2015 MDG target for primary enrolment but is off pace in other areas
Cambodia’s progress on primary enrolment masks problems in other areas.
Though Cambodia's mixed performance in the field of education manifests itself in a number of ways - gender disparities at some levels but not at others, for instance, or urban-rural resource gaps - few have been so direct as the description of the national education system found in UNESCO's "Education For All" report released late last year.
The report listed Cambodia among 63 countries to have achieved nearly universal primary enrolment, but it also listed it as one of the worst-performing countries with regards to literacy. It warned that the Kingdom was at "serious risk" of not attaining universal literacy by 2015, one of the targets under the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) pertaining to education. Cambodia was one of just five countries, and the only non-African country, to appear on both lists.
Suggestions of uneven progress surfaced again in a report released this month by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport assessing its 2007-08 academic year performance. At the primary school level, according to the report, Cambodia's net enrolment ratio reached 93.3 percent, moving within striking distance of the 2010 MDG target of universal primary enrolment. On the other hand, the primary school survival, or retention, rate was 52.5 percent, far short of the 100 percent MDG target.
Looking ahead, perhaps Cambodia's biggest challenge in meeting the goals is at the secondary level, where the net enrolment rate last year was just 34.8 percent, less than half of the 2010 target of 75 percent.
Teal Nipp, public relations manager for The Cambodia Project, a US-based nonprofit that looks to increase access to secondary education in rural provinces, said that the gap between primary and secondary enrolment "is definitely not unique to Cambodia".
Nipp said she believes the desire to meet the MDG target for primary education, a particular focus of the goal, has led many countries to funnel resources to grades one through six while paying less attention to grades seven and above.
To help extend enrolment gains to the secondary level, The Cambodia Project plans to open three secondary schools in rural provinces over the next five years. The first school, to be built in Kampot province, will seat 980 students. Construction should begin by December, said Jean-Michel Tijerina, the project's founder.
In addition to providing health care for students and staff and employing green construction methods, Tijerina said he hopes to create schools that are locally managed and financially sustainable.
To that end, project leaders said they plan to set up for-profit businesses to support each school that will likely involve the sale of local organic products such as Kampot pepper. Tijerina said students "could contribute to the business in some way potentially", but noted that business plans had yet to be fully developed.
Though the details have yet to be fleshed out, Tijerina said the general plan was "definitely a model that looks to be scaleable". However, because it will likely take until 2015 - the year the first school is to become financially sustainable - to determine whether the model works as envisioned, the project and other long-term efforts that are just getting off the ground will likely have little impact on Cambodia's ability to meet its MDG targets.
In explaining why Cambodia has fallen behind on the targets, Judy Baldwin, management adviser at NGO Education Partnership, a networking organisation that facilitates communication between the government and education NGOs, cited everything from a lack of textbooks to access issues to long-held views about appropriate gender roles in the Kingdom. "There's no silver bullet" to get back on track, she said.
But Baldwin emphasised that she does not believe the MDG effort should be abandoned altogether.
"The answer is not to say, ‘We're not going to achieve it, so we're just going to do the best we can'," she said.