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

  • All Covid restrictions for inbound travellers lifted

    Cambodia has apparently taken the final step towards full reopening of the country without Covid-19 restrictions by removing all requirements for inbound travellers, who until now had to show health certificates indicating that they have tested Covid-19 negative in the past 72 hours as well as

  • Typhoon Noru brings flash floods – 16 dead

    An official warned that that the 16th typhoon of the season, Noru, had brought heavy rains to areas the Mekong River and flooded thousands of homes in the provinces bordering Thailand. As of September 27, the death toll from the flooding had risen to 16. National Committee

  • Cambodia stands firm on 5PC: No invite for Myanmar to ASEAN Summit this year

    Cambodia has not invited Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, chairman of Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council (SAC), to the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summit and related meetings scheduled for next month in Phnom Penh. The government will instead invite a non-political representative from Myanmar

  • Mushrooming borey projects and home financing – a cause for concern?

    A spurt in housing developments is typically a sign of a growing economy but underneath all that might lay some anxiety of credit growth as developers offer financing to buyers at higher rates, an activity the central bank identifies as ‘shadow banking’ Earlier this year,

  • Thai Senate delegates in Cambodia to discuss anti-graft co-op

    A delegation from Thailand's Senate was in Phnom Penh on September 28 to meet their Cambodian counterparts to discuss strategies for fighting corruption and enhancing cooperation. The Thai delegates were from its Senate’s Committee on Studying and Inspecting Corruption, Misconduct and Strengthening Good Governance. They

  • Hun Sen’s rare visit to Cuba: What’s going on?

    Back on August 17, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that he would deliver a speech at the 77th UN General Assembly (UNGA) at the UN headquarters in the US’ New York City, visit Cuba and attend the state funeral of the slain Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo