Minister of Education touts progress made in bringing education to everyone and outlines the challenges that lie ahead.
Newly appointed Minister of Education Im Sethy shown here in a file photograph. The minister believes Cambodia has made great strides in education, though it still has far to go.
In an interview with the Post, Minister of Education Im Sethy reflects on how Cambodia's education system has changed since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime and how it can be improved. He also details efforts on the part of the ministry to introduce material about the regime into classrooms nationwide.
How do you view the evolution of the education system?
In 1979, we went back to square one. As you know, 80 percent of teachers were killed during the Khmer Rouge years. The majority of those who were still alive had taught in primary schools. And only 10 percent of the school buildings remained. The task before the Ministry of Education was huge. We basically had to reorganise an education system that was in ruins.
I think we have to be optimistic because we have done a lot since then. Of course we do not satisfy everybody, and there is a lack of quality in many areas. But look at the changes: At the beginning of the school year - on September 24, 1979 - we had a 10-year education system and 900,000 pupils. We now have regular schools with 12 years of study and a free education system.
Today is the time of education for all. Ninety-three percent of children go to school in Cambodia. Of course, it is not enough, but we strive to respond to the needs of the people.
You speak about a free education system, but many pupils have to give money to their teachers.
Most of these irregularities take place in chief towns. In the countryside, this is less common because people do not have enough money to pay. So it does not concern everybody.
We try to prevent this. We recognise that salaries are not sufficient and that we have to change things. We give a bonus to teachers who teach supplementary classes and to those who teach in remote provinces. And, like last year, teachers will get a 20 percent increase in their salary this year.
What are your priorities when it comes to reform?
Our essential task is to make sure that children who are of age to go to school are able to. In looking at access, we hope to abolish the differences between the rich and the poor, between boys and girls and between the cities and the countryside. That's why we need to build more schools and to add new buildings to incomplete schools, especially in remote areas.
Our duty is also to improve the quality of education through reforms. Without reforms, there will be no progress. We first have to restore order according to official regulations, which are already in place.
Let's give an example, on the problem of retirement: All teachers should retire when they are 60 years old. Right now, some do and some don't. The rules have to be applied to everybody.
Here's another example: We have received criticism from people who say there are too many pupils repeating grades or abandoning school altogether. To fix this, we need to revise the rules. Right now, the rules state that if a pupil is absent a certain number of days, he fails automatically. But if a pupil does not go to school, someone should visit the parents and find a solution to the problem.
OUR ESSENTIAL TASK IS TO MAKE SURE THAT CHILDREN WHO ARE OF AGE TO GO TO SCHOOL ARE ABLE TO.
In general, I would say that we are entering a phase of consolidation of our education system. We have neither enough classes nor enough teachers, but in the long run we plan to have an education system where there will be enough resources for students to attend school all day long.
How is it possible to improve the quality of education?
We need to focus on teacher training. Continuing training for teachers is necessary. They should receive a weekly training on methodology. We encourage them to study part time. They will get a better salary if they get new training certificates.
But the training of teachers, which has to be flexible for people of different levels, is not enough. We have to focus on the areas where education is not accessible to all.
Education is a way to integrate people from remote areas who have their own language and culture. Within one state, you can't have parallel education systems. We need to share a common language, the official language, without preventing them from preserving their own language and culture. We want a school system that is inclusive.
What about the quality of the university education?
We are working on standards for education that will allow us to fix the level of skills required. We have already established these standards for grades 3, 6 and 9, thanks to support from [the United States Agency for International Development].
We need to do the same thing at the university level. And private universities will have to conform to these standards as well.
Teaching about the Khmer Rouge regime is basically nonexistent in schools. What do you think are the challenges in teaching this, and what solutions do you propose?
After the genocide, we tried to talk about this period, but the international community blamed us and accused us of "politicising the system and implicating the children in political matters".
After the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, the same international community prevented us from using the word "genocide". Later, there were problems with the interpretation by different political parties of the history that was taught in grade 12.
But everybody needs to know the past of his people. So we are working with the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) in order to talk about this period. Our young people need to understand the situation of their country and to know what happened. And they have to get larger knowledge of Cambodia's history and of the world's history.
When will material on the Khmer Rouge be integrated into the curricula?
We should launch it in the coming weeks.
Interview by Anne-Laure Poree