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'Free' education costs a fortune

'Free' education costs a fortune

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Forced to a spend a significant chunk of their income on informal fees if they want to send their children to school, parents wonder what happened to the promise of free education

Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN

Students attend their high school in Phnom Penh last week. Parents are angered by informal school fees.

DESPITE the government's promise to curb the practice, Cambodian families say they still must pay a hefty portion of their monthly income to public school teachers in order to secure a spot in the classroom for their children.  

"Me and my classmates give 1,000 riels (US$0.25) to our teacher every morning, and if students don't give money, their name is deleted from the class list," said 12-year-old Korn Cham Veasna, grade-six student at Tuol Svay Prey primary school, near Damkor market.

Soug Samnang, who has two children in school in Phnom Penh, complained that beyond undermining the official policy of free public education, informal school fees make teachers "forget about teaching and concentrate on collecting money".

He said teachers should put the burden of their poor salaries on the government, "which claims to care a lot about education, but does nothing about the problem".

A teacher from Chhamroeun Phal primary school who declined to be named said she understood parents' anger but needed student fees to make ends meet.

"I've been a teacher nearly 20 years, and I still earn just $20 a month. I would die on my monthly salary alone," she said.

She added that unless her salary was increased to $150, she would have to continue collecting money.

The deputy director of Phnom Penh's education department, Meas Ngeuk, said the education ministry had already approved a regulation  prohibiting informal school fees.

He said that while he had "heard" about such fees he hadn't yet received evidence of the practice, which, by  the accounts of parents interviewed, occurs in every state-school classroom every day.

The director of the Education Ministry's Primary School Department, Chong Cheangly, said the ministry was looking into the problem.

But he would not indicate what specific measures would be taken.

For the time being, he placed responsibility on teachers, saying that "the teachers must have their ethics, and must not do this".

But for Rong Chhun, president of Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, the solution was in the hands of the government, which he insisted has the means, but not the will, to raise teachers' salaries.

According to an October 2007 study by the NGO Education Partnership on informal school fees in Cambodia, the average cost of sending one child to school was $108.20 per year.

This represents 8.7 percent of the annual average income of families.

Given these numbers, an average family with all 3.6 children in school would need to spend more than a third of its annual income on education.

Beyond imposing increased economic hardship on often poor parents, informal school fees condition children to dishonesty and corruption, the report said. 

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