"Are we corrupt?... Yes, I suppose we are," admits the primary school teacher
after a moment's thought. "But we are corrupt just to survive."
As she sits supervising a class of students who have paid her for this lesson, the
teacher, from Bak Touk primary school in Phnom Penh, draws a distinction.
"Are we different from the corrupt officials who have become millionaires?"
she asks. Denouncing those corrupt officials "who close their eyes and swallow
big money by destroying the national forests or selling state property," she
adds: "They are very, very rich. They never have to worry about having nothing
to eat like us. They have plenty of money, even for their great-grandchildren in
Every morning before school officially starts, and every lunchtime, this teacher
- and virtually all of her colleagues throughout Phnom Penh - holds "extra"
classes for her students, charging several hundred riels a lesson.
Aged in her late 30s, the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, is thin and sick.
She talks faintly, and coughs regularly - she complains of lung problems which she
attributes to standing in front of a chalkboard since 1979. She nurses her young
baby on her lap in the classroom; she says she has no choice but to bring her baby
to school with her every day.
Earning about $20 a month from her official salary, she says it isn't enough to even
pay for her family's food. She needs the money from the extra classes. To her, charging
for these classes is a fair swap - money in exchange for knowledge - and a matter
Corruption or survival, the charging of such fees by teachers is a fact of life in
Cambodia's skeletal school system. Typically, primary school teachers hold two extra
classes a day - one in the early morning and one at lunchtime - and charge each student
200-500 riels a class.
The practice is implicitly permitted by education authorities, who unofficially restrict
teachers' charges to no more than 100 riels a day, though that is frequently exceeded.
Then there are extra charges: to get your son or daughter in a good seat near the
front of a class, or to ensure that the teacher pays special attention to them.
For parents and teachers, it's a system which is hard to avoid - the "extra"
classes are virtually mandatory; a student who doesn't attend them is hardly likely
to get well-treated in their "normal" classes. Switching teachers to one
who doesn't charge as much is also frowned upon, as teachers have an unwritten code
not to ëinterfere' in each other's business by taking each other's students.
Although primary school teachers maintain that they target the "rich",
and don't charge the poor, the reality is that some kids don't go to school because
their parents can't afford to send them.
Some parents balk at the paying the charges, but others accept them as necessary
for their children's education.
Heng Lida, 27, who lives near Toul Tompong market, says she has no problem paying
200 riels a day for her son Heng Seyha to study at Phom 6 school. Moreover, she pays
another 5,000 riels a month to his teacher for extra attention.
"If I don't give the teacher extra money, he will not keep his eyes on my son,"
Lida said. Before she offered the teacher money, she found no lessons had been written
in her son's book. "After I gave the teacher some money, I found my son had
written some lessons in his book when he came back home."
Lida notes that her son is "lazy to learn, so I cannot blame the teacher for
not paying attention to my son because there are many more students in the class
the teacher has to deal with".
While Lida is forgiving, other parents are angry at the "corruption" within
schools. As for the teachers, they claim they don't like the system any more than
most parents do, but that - unless the government pays them more - they don't have
"Am I happy to get 200 riels extra from my students? I don't want to be a disreputable
teacher like this, but my hungry stomach forces me to do this," says You Ngorn
Chheang, another teacher at Bak Touk primary.
Every day, Chheang rides his old second-hand motorcycle to the school, near the Juliana
Hotel, where his working day is lengthened by the extra classes he teaches.
"I'm too tired to do this [extra] work. I would like to rest, but I can't,"
says Chheang, looking pale and thin. With his wife and three children to support,
he says he holds extra classes even during the school vacation.
Although primary school teachers haven't joined the current strike by high school
and university tutors, Chheang supports their cause.
"The government told us lies many times before as they produced the words like:
'Let the people be rich before the State'. Then, the government used other words
like ëto eliminate poverty' and later they corrected the word from 'eliminate' to
'reduce'," he says.
Chheang says he charges his students 200 riels a day, and that his family is dependent
on the roughly 5,000 riels a day extra income that this earns him.
But students at Bak Touk say their teachers regularly charge 500 riels. With typical
class sizes of 40-60 students, teachers could easily reap more than 20,000 riels
a day from their classes.
Officially, teachers earn $15-$20 a month (60,000-80,000 riels), and high school
and university teachers have gone on strike in pursuit of about $300 a month. The
government has offered only an extra 20,000 riels ($5) to them, which - if accepted
- would also be paid to primary teachers.
Chheang accepts that $300 a month is going to be difficult to secure, and would be
happy if the government extended its offer of 20,000 riels to 30,000 riels. That,
he says, would help eliminate the need for extra classes.
Complaints over teacher salaries - and their unofficial fees - have escalated with
Cambodia's transition over the past decade from communism to a free market economy.
"Before, the standard of living of the teachers was high, and the level of society
was low. But now, the level of society is high and the standard of living of the
teachers is low," says Chea Cheath, deputy director of Phnom Penh Education
Between 1979 and 1988 teachers received salaries of 90-105 riels per month - which
was adequate, because they also got free housing, electricity and water and some
rations of food and other supplies.
But in the 1990s, many of them lost their free housing and other supplies, and their
salaries failed to keep up with inflation. On their own, teachers began to demand
money from students' families.
The Phnom Penh municipal department of education tried unsuccessfully to crack down
on this practice but - unable or unwilling to boost teachers' salaries - eventually
accepted it. An unwritten deal was hatched: the department agreed to turn a blind
eye to teachers' charging 100 riels a day, providing that they offered additional
classes to students in return.
"We realized that is not legal but we closed our eyes to it because we didn't
have another solution. If we didn't agree, the teachers would not teach, and when
the teachers don't teach what would happen to Cambodian students?" says Chea
The agreement was not long in being breached; the standard quickly became 200 riels
a day, and up to 500 riels depending on the level of the class.
Um Hoeung, the director of Phnom Penh Municipal Education Department, both sympathizes
with the teachers and vows to try to keep them in line. About 20 teachers - those
who were considered to be too greedy - have been administratively disciplined in
the past few years.
"We suspended them because they had forced students to buy them cakes and charged
them more than one hundred riels for their extra classes," says Hoeung, explaining
that the teachers had been transferred to office duties.
The user-pays practice is by no means limited to primary schools. According to parents
and teachers, high school teachers also charge fees but in different ways - for instance
they might charge to give a written copy of a lesson to a student, rather than make
the student copy it down from a blackboard. High schools and university teachers
also charge for extra tutoring, but these classes are more optional than they are
in primary schools.
At one Phnom Penh primary school, Boeng Trabek, headmaster Men Samon notes that teacher
salaries and pupil fees are just part of the problem with Cambodia's poor education
Typically, one primary school classroom is shared by two classes, with daily lessons
compressed into a half-day. Students are taught at an accelerated rate and not able
to absorb their lessons.
For teachers, the quality of education suffers because of the amount of time and
energy they expend on mere survival. For pupils and their families, financial pressures
can mean that only the relatively wealthy get a good education. In some cases, the
pressures explode into violence: teachers beat students, and vice-versa, and some
secondary school students carry guns.
Men Samon, of Boeng Trabek primary, worries about the collapse of Cambodian culture
and society unless education is made a high priority. "Remember when the culture
collapses the nation will melt away," he warns.
In the meantime, Cambodia's young - or those who can afford it - go on learning what
is needed to survive in the school system.
Heng Lida, the mother who pays 200 riels a day plus 5,000 riels a month for her son
to get special attention, recalls taking her son to school one morning. Stopping
on the way to buy breakfast near the school gates, her son got frightened when he
saw the school director.
"Mother, mother, look at that... he is Om Neayouk, (uncle director)" Lida's
son told her. Asked why he was frightened, her son said: "I'm afraid that he
will beat me because I do not buy cake for my teachers."