One candidate in this year’s high school diploma examinations stood out from the masses of teenagers who flocked to the test centres on December 5-6. Hem Sinath was the oldest among the 12,135 candidates who registered for the exams.

Sinath, a 56-year-old literacy teacher in Banteay Chhmar commune of Thma Puok district, Banteay Meanchey province, joined the exam in order to become a qualified teacher, and to encourage the younger generations with the belief that it is never too late to chase one’s dream of education.

The woman, who is currently raising seven young grandchildren, told The Post that she took a motorbike taxi to the exam at the National Meanchey University campus in Banoy village of Teuk Thla commune, Serei Saophoan town. She estimated she has a 50 per cent chance of passing, but owed it to herself and her family to try.

“My main goal of participating in the high school diploma exam is to be able to continue teaching and earning a living for myself and my grandchildren. I also want to encourage the next generation to understand that they should not drop out of school,” she said.

Sinath said that she was born in Tani commune in Angkor Chey district, Kampot province. She moved to Battambang in 1984 and in 2008, she moved to Banteay Meanchey. She has four children, all of whom are working, leaving her to care for her grandchildren.

“My children used to live with me, but they all moved in order to find work. My oldest grandchild is just 10 years old and the youngest is only one,” she added.

She said she passed her diploma in 1983, but lost the certificate in a house fire. When she moved to Banteay Chhmar commune 2008, she was selected as a teacher at Thma Romeal Primary School.

Initially, she and the other villagers built the school and thatched its roof, but in 2011, a Canadian philanthropist and the O’Kandeung Organisation built two buildings. More than 300 students study from kindergarten to 6th grade each day.

During her time as a teacher, she also sold cakes and school supplies to earn enough to support her grandchildren.

In 2018, she was forced to stop teaching, as was required to hold a high school diploma to keep her position. Instead, she now teaches Khmer literacy in local villages.

She explained that the work was not as stable as teaching in a state school. Sometimes her classes are in demand, and sometimes they are not. She is generally contracted to work for just eight months of the year, with an average salary of around $125.

“Sometimes I borrow a bicycle to get to the classes, and sometimes I pull my grandchildren along in a cart. Generally, I teach for two hours in the evening – from 5 to 7 – and then head home,” she said.

She applied for a replacement of the high school diploma she claims she lost, but was denied, owing to her age. This was not enough to stop her dream of returning to the classroom full time, and she made enquiries about non-formal education.

The Ministry of Youth, Education and Sport encourage lifetime learning, and she was pleased to discover that there is no age limit for the high school examinations.

She passed the secondary exam in 2019, and has been undergoing an intense regime of self study.

“After passing the secondary school exam, I continued to study as hard as I could. In 2022, at the age of 56, I have applied for the high school diploma exams. I hope to pass,” she said.

Her husband passed away due to illness eight years ago, and she has lived in poverty ever since.

She explained how she saw education as the best way to escape her circumstances.

“I do not earn enough from literacy classes to support my grandchildren. This is why I have been so focused on studying. If I can obtain the baccalaureate, I will be qualified to teach full-time in a state school,” she said.

Many years ago, contract teachers could qualify to become full-fledged teachers once they had ten years of experience, but this pathway was removed almost as she reached the milestone.