Ny Thon and her son Noun, 2, live along Sisowath Quay near the gates to the Secretariat of National and International Festivals.
T he numbers of children between three and five years old attending preschool and of five-year-olds in Grade 1 of primary school are well below the levels necessary if Cambodia is to achieve its "education for all" targets, say officials at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MoEYS).
The national "education for all" plan aims to have 75 percent of five-year-olds in school and 50 percent of children between three and five in preschool by 2015.
"Even though we have organized many programs and have cooperation from other organizations and related institutions, both private and community, for helping children to get education, the rate of children aged from three to five getting education in 2005-2006 is only 13.6 percent and of five-year-olds 27.3 percent," said Im Sethy, secretary of state at the MoEYS, during a workshop on November 20 on Early Childhood Development. "It is still low compared to the demand of the national 'education for all' plan."
Sieng Sorvathana, director of the Early Childhood Care and Development Department of MoEYS, said the low figures are because parents do not know the importance of studying at preschool, because of a lack of state preschools and of state preschool teachers, and because people are poor.
Sorvathana said preschools help children develop mentally and physically, and help prepare them for schooling.
She said a lot of students drop out of school in Grade 2 or 3 because most of them did not go to preschool before they began Grade 1.
"In Grade 1, students have to start learning their letters, but at preschool, children learn with a lot of pleasure," Sorvathana said. "We spend at least one month to take care of children crying, and we continue looking after their general development - of body, intellect, using the five senses, offering love to them...and socialization -to get children used to having relations with other people besides their families."
Ila Varma, education project officer at Unicef, said, "Child development is a process of change in which the child learns to handle simple to more complex levels of moving, thinking, feeling, and relating to others."
But Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said the reason students drop out of school at Grade 2 or 3 is because their families are poor and cannot pay school fees. And the students who drop out of school will have no chance of work other than in low-paying jobs.
Chhun said Cambodia does not have enough preschools.
Ny Thon, a 52-year-old mother from Kampot who lives under the trees on the streets of Phnom Penh with her husband and their three children aged two, three, and four, said she wanted to send her children to preschool but her family's living standard and situation made that impossible.
"Our life is very difficult," Thon said. "Every day my husband and I have to look for a new place to sleep. I know that children at aged three to five years should be going to preschool, but I could not afford the school fees - I know I have to pay to have my children study at preschool."
Sorvathana said some preschools have to charge each student 3,000 to 4,000 riel per year because of limited budget support for preschools.
"However, we still lack preschools and teachers," Sorvathana said. "And people don't feel confident to send their children to preschool because it is far from home -they are afraid of any accident happening to their children, such as child trafficking."
Im Sethy said, "To meet the gradually increasingly demand for early childhood education, we need investment in building classrooms, training more teachers every year and offering scholarships to poor students.
By the numbers
Children with access to early childhood education services: 11%.
Drop out rate between Grades 1 and 2: 30%.
Pupils who complete Grade 6: 43%.
Pupils who complete Grade 9: 19%.
Schools with no drinking water: 43%.
Schools with no latrines: 34%.
Number of students per primary school teacher: 51
Source: Department of Early Childhood Education and Education.
Statistics and Indicators, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports for the 2005-to-2006 school year