Children attend class at a village school about an hour’s drive northeast of Phnom Penh.
School dropout rates are rising, particularly among the poor, education officials warn, saying that the spiraling costs of goods and transport and the suspension of a World Food Program (WFP) project that provided breakfasts for primary school pupils are forcing many children out of class.
Up to 50 percent of primary and secondary students in remote areas have been dropping out of school due to such factors as high inflation, increased poverty and declining attention from the government, said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association.
A survey released by Save the Children Norway in December 2007 found that as few as 138 out of 1,000 students who enrolled in the first grade would go on to complete primary school in Cambodia.
According to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, there are about 8,000 schools in the Kingdom with 3,433,048 students.
“Drop out rates and students taking time off from school have become a more serious problem and a pressing concern,” Chhun told the Post. “If the Ministry of Education and the government continue to ignore these problems, it could strongly affect the future of these children.”
Mar Sophea, a social sector officer for the Asian Development Bank, urged the Ministry of Education to work more with donors to ensure that school food and scholarship programs were not interrupted.
“We don’t know the magnitude of the effect of inflation on primary school attendance, but surely rice and the rising prices of other goods play a significant role,” said Sophea
“Students from poor families and non-rice producing areas are the first ones to feel the impact.”
Coco Ushiyama, acting country director for the WFP, said the full breakfast project was discontinued in May, affecting 450,000 primary students at 1,344 schools throughout the country. However, a $5.4-million infusion on June 9 from WFP headquarters in Rome has allowed the program could continue until the end of the school year in July.
Ushiyama said the suspension had been due to rising foods prices and defaulting rice suppliers on contract with the WFP, adding before the program was resumed, “We expect to see an increasing number of dropouts as the hunger season approaches.”
Sou Sophornnara, an advocacy and communications specialist with Save the Children Norway, indicated that a number of factors were further driving up the dropout rate, including the impact on students’ families of the rising costs of food, school supplies and transportation to school, as well as the declining quality of education and increasing school violence.
“Education changes lives,” he said. “If our country continues to allow students to drop out, we won’t be able to develop our country.”