Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - High hopes meet hurdles in plan to bring arts education to every school in Cambodia

High hopes meet hurdles in plan to bring arts education to every school in Cambodia

Actors from Khmer Arts Action perform an adaptation of the book Boss with a Thief’s Heart on Friday at Preah Sisowath High School as part of a new arts education pilot program. Supplied/Keat Sokim
Actors from Khmer Arts Action perform an adaptation of the book Boss with a Thief’s Heart on Friday at Preah Sisowath High School as part of a new arts education pilot program. Photo supplied/Keat Sokim

High hopes meet hurdles in plan to bring arts education to every school in Cambodia

To the students running around Phnom Penh’s Preah Sisowath High School, the wide expanse of concrete towards the front of the campus is nothing more than a basketball court.

But to Suon Bun Rith, the slightly raised platform is an arts stage – even if it was covered in dead leaves and an SUV was parked on it on a recent afternoon.

“Arts education is not just about skill, but about creativity,” said Rith, a programme manager at Cambodian Living Arts who is leading a large new pilot program to bring the arts to every public school in the country. “It is about inspiration rather than just knowledge.”

It hasn’t been easy. Even something as simple as getting a derelict gate repaired outside the program’s new offices at Preah Sisowath High School has taken longer than expected. Some students, meanwhile, are more interested in K-pop and modelling than apsara or the chapei. And occasionally, parents have even declined to sign permission slips for their children to attend the program’s arts club, dismissing it as a waste of time.

“It’s an enormous task,” Rith acknowledged. “It’s huge. And it has a long way to go.”

The five-year pilot program has the support of the education and culture ministries, including that of reformist Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron, who has spoken publicly about the benefits of arts education.

But the challenges the program has faced in its first year highlight the enormity of the task in an education system with little infrastructure, few resources and a virtually nonexistent arts program.

The program now runs four after-school art clubs in photography, drawing, dancing and singing out of its offices on Preah Sisowath High School’s campus, drawing roughly 80 students a week.

Rith has also persuaded the high school’s few art teachers to hold one-hour classes on Saturday that are attended by roughly 100 students. “Students never miss the Saturday classes,” he said.

The program has also held workshops, film screenings and other performances every month.

On Friday, the basketball court was indeed transformed into a stage for a theatrical adaptation of Boss with a Thief’s Heart, a book taught in the Cambodian school curriculum about the unethical boss of a transportation company who manipulates his employee into causing a car crash to tarnish a rival’s reputation. Though the employee agrees to do the deed for money, he’s dismayed when it leads to the deaths of three people.

“The show does not tell who is right and who is wrong,” said 12-year-old Visasak Thunni, a seventh grader at the school who said the performance was her first time seeing a play. “I learned that we should not just do the thing that is easy, but do the thing that is morally correct.”

Soung Sopheak, director of the performance group Khmer Arts Action, said that it was the first time he had screened the performance in public with students. “I’m very happy and excited about it,” he said.

However, even Sopheak said he is doubtful that educators can encourage young Cambodians to get involved in the arts due to lack of interest and the widespread perception that careers in the arts earn no money.

Rith, however, remains optimistic about the “ultimate” dream – to fully incorporate arts education into public school.

It is a goal already shared by the Ministry of Education, which in 2015 proposed a new national curriculum that, among other things, redefined art as a separate subject and directed grades one through nine to incorporate one hour of it per week.

Unfortunately, the revamped textbooks for grades one through six are not expected to be completed until 2021, according to Rith. In addition, the country is also facing a shortage of arts teachers – one that may not be fixed for another decade, he estimated.

That’s why Rith said he hopes CLA’s pilot program can jumpstart that process ahead of the ministry’s schedule.

“We need the arts if we want to produce complete humans and good citizens,” Rith said. “I don’t want to wait another five years.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Cambodia armed with money laundering laws

    Money laundering will now carry a penalty of up to five years in prison while those convicted of financing terrorists will be jailed for up to 20 years, according to new laws promulgated by King Norodom Sihamoni and seen by The Post on Thursday. Comprising nine

  • Schools to be reopened in ‘three stages’

    With guidance from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, is in the process of reopening schools in three stages. But no timeline has been set, ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said on Thursday. Soveacha said the first stage will be to

  • Thai border crossings eased

    The Cambodian Embassy in Thailand said in an announcement on Wednesday that Thailand’s government has allowed certain passengers from several countries to enter its borders. The visitors must go back to their country immediately after their duties in Thailand are fulfilled, the embassy said.

  • Gov’t says tourism recovers slightly despite pandemic

    The Ministry of Tourism and the Phnom Penh municipal administration have recognised 33 tourism businesses in the capital which have consistently implemented safety measures for tourists and adhered to the code of conduct issued by the ministry. Recently, the ministry announced that tourism businesses had to

  • Mull ASEAN border opening, PM urges

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has requested that ASEAN launch a scenario for gradually reopening cross-border travel and trade between countries in the region. He said ASEAN has had more success combating Covid-19 compared to other regions. The prime minister’s request was made at the

  • Ministry reports 11 new Covid-19 cases, reiterates vigilance

    Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng has urged people to continue practising virus prevention techniques after 11 people tested positive for Covid-19 within two days after arriving in the Kingdom. Speaking on Sunday, Bun Heng stressed the importance of washing hands, wearing masks or scarves when

  • Koh Rong land ‘belongs to firm’

    Preah Sihanouk Provincial Administration spokesperson Kheang Phearum told The Post on Sunday that the 35ha being bulldozed by Royal Group Co Ltd in Koh Rong belongs to it after it was leased to it for 99 years by the government in 2008. Phearum said the land does

  • Nine on Indonesia flight Covid-19 positive

    The Ministry of Health on Saturday confirmed nine more imported cases of Covid-19. The nine ‒ eight Cambodians and one Indonesian, aged 22 to 26 ‒ arrived in Cambodia on Thursday via a direct flight from Indonesia and are receiving treatment at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hostipal in Phnom Penh.

  • Kingdom’s financial sector healthy

    Cambodia's financial sector remains on a sustainable growth path despite the Covid-19 pandemic squeezing crucial industries, National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) governor Chea Chanto said. Tourism, garments and footwear have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 impact, he said, whereas the financial and agriculture sectors

  • Vietnam told to remove border tents

    Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophoan has ordered local authorities to prohibit the construction of buildings in areas bordering Cambodia and to report any irregularities immediately. Recently, Vietnamese officials removed another seven tents from the border area with Cambodia. His remarks were made on Wednesday afternoon