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Students wash their hands at a primary school in Phnom Penh in December 2014.
Students wash their hands at a primary school in Phnom Penh in December 2014. Vireak Mai

Knowledge is power – educating Cambodia

Twenty-five years ago, Cambodia’s schools were scarce, and teachers even scarcer.

According to Chin Chanveasna, head of the NGO Education Partnership, enrolment was low and a lack of infrastructure prevented many children from attending classes.

While Cambodia’s education system has made significant strides since the early 1990s, experts like Chanveasna warn that significant reforms are still needed if Cambodia’s education sector is to catch up with many of its peers in the region, and many of the problems that plagued the sector decades ago – while diminished – still remain.

Experts point to the crucial need for the government to continue to increase its investment in education to at least 20 percent of national spending – a benchmark the Ministry of Education hoped, and failed, to hit in 2016 under its strategic plan.

The ministry’s budget currently only stands at 18.3 percent of the national budget – a figure just slightly below the ministry’s 2015 projection, despite seeing continuous budget increases in recent years.
Just like other sectors in the country, the education system had to be rebuilt in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge era, when schools and hospitals were shuttered.

The education system in Cambodia, however, has seen the slowest progress of any government sector in the country since the 1990s. According to the 2017 UN Human Development Index, the number of expected schooling years in the Kingdom in 2015 was 10.9, but the average number of years of school attended was only 4.7.

Still, UNICEF spokeswoman Iman Morooka said in an email, “There are notable areas of progress in the education sector.”

“One of them is at the structural level: the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has made structural changes under the reform agenda aiming to better achieve equity in providing education services and to improve the quality of education.”

Students in class at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh.
Students in class at Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

That includes establishing the Directorate General of Policy and Planning, Special Education Department and Examination Department, among others.

In addition, the development of the National Early Childhood Care and Development Policy, which is now being implemented with involvement of 11 ministries, demonstrates commitment, Morooka said.

“We’ve seen an increase in the number of children enrolled in pre-schools, 3-5 years old from 20 percent in year 2009-10 to 41 percent in year 2016-17,” she said. “In primary education, we’ve seen improvement in the enrollment rate from 94.8 percent in 2009-10 to 98 percent in 2016-17, respectively.”

Last year, the government also adopted the Multilingual Education National Action Plan designed to improve access and quality of education for children from non-Khmer speaking ethnic minority communities. Morooka said they are already starting to see an increase in the number of multilingual schools, which allow students to learn in their native language and slowly transition into Khmer.

Most notably, in 2014, Education Minster Hang Chuon Naron, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, implemented sweeping reforms to curb widespread corruption and cheating in the national Grade-12 exit exam. Last year, 62 percent of students passed the exam, a significant improvement on the pass rate from the first year of reforms, which had plummeted to 25.7 percent thanks to hard-line anti-cheating measures.

However, as Education Partnership’s Chanveasna pointed out, the education system still needs to develop as a whole.

“We need to look at the foundation,” he said. “We need to make sure that children at the age of 5 are learning.”

But ongoing curriculum and teacher reforms seek to accomplish just that.

“This is an ongoing system improvement,” he added.

In fact, the ministry approved a Teacher Policy and its Action Plan, which includes upgrading the capacity of teacher training institutions, UNICEF’s Morooka said.

“For example, [the ministry] is upgrading the training formula of basic education,” she said. “It is also planning to upgrade the regional and provincial teacher training centres to teacher education colleges.”

Chanveasna said there are several efforts to move toward an environment where teachers can be supported, coached and mentored. There are also some initiatives to provide professional development for teachers with years of experience in the classroom as teaching methodologies have changed.

But professional development will take a significant investment.

“I think that there’s a lot of commitment from the government, but in terms of investment, we haven’t seen it yet,” Chanveasna said.

However, Chanveasna did acknowledge the recent budget increases in education. For example, the education budget has jumped from $335 million in 2014 to $600 million this year.

Rethy Chhem, executive director at the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, said modern innovations are needed in Cambodian classrooms in order to teach children to solve the complex problems they will face in the future, both in their private and professional lives. The burden of the failure to invest in this area, he said, will be felt by society as a whole.

“One may think that the cost of education is high, but not investing sufficiently in education will cost even higher [for] our society,” he said.

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