Cambodia’s political culture is continuing to threaten the quality of primary education, and ambitious reforms are likely to fall flat unless changes are made at the ground level, according to a new report.
The report was published by the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) research centre this week, based on research and data collected last year.
“Ambitious, wide-ranging, top-down reform programmes . . . are likely to disappoint,” the report read. “Unless better incentives are provided, then, we would expect the local-level implementation of reforms to be patchy,” unless they had exceptional school directors or NGO support.
While the report said it did not want “to pour cold water on the enthusiasm for reform”, it suggested policy changes – like higher salaries and weeding out corrupt or incompetent staff – but acknowledged these recommendations “go against the grain of Cambodia’s current political settlement”.
Report co-author Tim Kelsall said a poor election result for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party prompted the appointment of a “serious reformer” in Education Minister Chuon Naron amid a culture where loyalty had long been valued over competence.
“However, to improve quality the minister and his supporters will have to win hundreds or thousands of mini-political struggles against all the people in the system who are content with the status quo,” he said.
Tek Muy Tieng, a research assistant at the Cambodian Development Research Institute who collected data for the report, said quality could vary drastically even when schools were a mere 2 kilometres apart.
“Because of the leadership from one school, it was able to get funds; [at] the other, the director was not up to date, and just did not care about the school – he focused on his business and moonlighting,” she said.
Education Ministry spokesperson Ros Salin defended the minister’s policy reforms over the past two years – including lifting teacher salaries with the view of a base salary of $250 by 2018. He said the “deep reform” was founded on grassroots research, and credited the changes with raising the high school pass rate from a total of 40 per cent in 2014 – when a make-up round of testing was hastily approved after new anti-cheating measures saw pass rates plummet – to 55 per cent in 2015.
Chin Chanveasna, executive director of the NGO Education Partnership, which liaises between civil society groups and the government, said that he was optimistic recently planted seeds of reform would yield fruit, but this could take up to a decade.
He said government funding for schools was “not enough”, and that he doubted “informal fee” collection could be completely stamped out without a strong stance by school administrations.