July is the month of exam cheating: systematic, unashamed and pervading down to the
youngest of pupils. Soly Vannpok and Chhun Phaveng talk with Khmer
academics, teachers, pupils and parents.
A CROWD of people throng around a photocopier in a shack outside a school, copying
answers for their sisters and brothers inside doing examinations.
They throw the answers wrapped in rocks through open windows.
Everyone is paying and everyone seems to be on the take: students pay teachers; relatives
pay police to turn a blind eye.
Students must pass these exams to graduate. In the hope for knowledge and eventually
a well-paid job the pressure is intense. In many cases, their families have sacrificed
much for them to get this far.
Chhay Yiheang, a doctorate professor at Phnom Penh University and teacher since the
1960's, said: "Teachers and staff in Cambodia have descended into corruption
and [what I call] a fresh demonstration as a result of low salaries. They come to
work late and leave early.
"I have sympathy for teachers who have studied a long time but earn less than
uneducated construction workers. They are jealous because MP's salaries could fill
the trunk of a car.
"I have never seen teachers' spirits as low as they are this year.
"The quality of [Cambodian] education is not recognized as being [equal to]
UN standards. The quality of education should be addressed by people with power,
otherwise Cambodia will sink and be destroyed by other cultures.
"[But] I am not a pessimist. I have some hope that things will change as society
changes. Students must study hard in every subject."
Yiheang said that the quality of education depended on the quality of teachers, but
if teachers were not paid well they would not work hard.
"Reform needs to be taken up by people who can separate knowledge and science
from their own feelings. If we can form a group of people who respect logic, philosophy,
psychology and science... if we wake up and start now, our country can develop and
He described a recent anecdote of an exam controller being struck unconscious by
a candidate after the controller tried to withdraw the candidate's cribbed answers
during an exam.
"Students always ask supervisors to turn a blind eye and have pity... [but]
they will also collect money to bribe exam supervisors. If the supervisor does not
agree to take money, he or she is threatened with violence. Which way do teachers
choose? Security and money? Or blood on the head and no money?
"Corruption! A person taking a bribe, a person with power who knows the truth
but does not care about [it].
"It seems unjust that [Education] Minister Tol Lah can withdraw [cribbed] documents
from candidates in a certain school while in other schools candidates can still copy
documents [without punishment]."
Min Kim Lun, director of Toul Tom Poung High School, said: "It is true that
the living standard of teachers are very, very difficult.
"Their salaries are only 50,000 riel per month but they have to pay at least
60,000 riel for food alone. Poor teachers must have at least one other job. The second
job makes them ignore research and planning for students' lessons.
"So we hear that teachers pressure their students to study in their private
classes after school to make money. Some teachers try to make money driving moto-taxis,
planting rice and vegetables, sewing or as security guards.
"I think our government is still poor and we don't want to claim our highest
aim, but if the salaries were $100 a month it would be enough to live and teachers
would teach well."
However, Kim Lun said that despite low salaries, some teachers did "give the
students knowledge and wisdom, and did it not just for the money".
Dam Soeun, director of Chaktomuk Junior High School, said: "If you want to mention
the quality of education, silence is better... Most students don't study hard. When
they go from school they never learn, just want to play."
"I hope when teachers get higher salaries that education will improve."
Bun Sary, vice director of Ounalorm Pagoda primary school, said: "While the
stomach is empty the ears are deaf."
In general, Sary said, when the standard of living was low, professional ideals become
"But the Ministry of Education let primary teachers take money from their students
before the classes are finished. Public schools teach for just four hours, allowing
teachers to take private classes at 100 riel per pupil," he said.
Sary said generally teachers did not want to take private courses because it lowered
their "prestige... but [they do so] because of their empty stomachs."
Parents generally seem pragmatic rather than bitter about the system, though they
realize it is less than adequate. For many, their own economic positions mirror that
of the teachers who are charged with educating their children.
However, some parents are being forced to take their children out of schools because
it is too expensive. In these situations, it is the poor, and the female students,
who suffer most.
Sourn Sitha, 37, a motor taxi driver with ten children, eight of whom are in the
school, said: "Teachers have to take private classes because they get only 60,000
riel per month. Their salaries are so low, so I think that if they exploit or cheat
money from students it is just to feed themselves and their families.
"I've asked my children and they say teachers take private classes during normal
public school hours. In one day I have to give 600 riel to each of my children.
"My children say if they don't study in private they will not be able to answer
well and will be beaten or blamed by the teachers.
"Now, I'd rather my children help me by selling something but I'm afraid it
will hurt their studies. Last year I let them sell cakes or pick up plastics or empty
tins to sell... but the result of their studies were so poor," said Sitha.
Ten-year-old Sourn Sereivoth, who studies in the third grade of Yamabiko primary
school said :"I give my teacher 200 riel every day for private classes. The
private class starts from 7am to 9am. From 9am to 11am I study in the public hours.
"My teacher used to punish me by making me knock the brick ten times if I did
not go to [private] study because I had no money to pay for [private] lessons,"
Mich Chan Thol, 13, from Tuol Kork primary school, said he was afraid to go to his
class sometimes because he did not have the 100 riel fee for a private lesson.
"The master of the class always collects money but I can never afford it. I
am very hungry and the 400 riel my mother gives me I pay for food.
"I am afraid of my teacher and I never understand the lesson, so I escape from
school many times. My mother believes I go to school everyday but in fact I do not."
Kim Sat, 37, a wine factory worker in Tuol Kork said "I have three children.
I pity them but I'm so poor and I'm not able to let my eldest daughter study any
more. I have to make her work with me."
Mich Chan Thy is fifteen years old, and she works in the same factory as her mother.
She is an ex-student at Toul Kork primary school who was always one of the brightest
of her class. Her mother, however, had to take her away from school.
"I hoped one day I would work in an office, any office, using my high knowledge
and so I could one day wear pretty clothes.
"But everything is just a dream."
Despite this, the government says that "the RCG accords the highest priority
to revitalizing the education system" and that "significant progress has
been achieved in financing and implementing initial investment plans, improving textbook
provision, revitalizing teacher training and strengthening educational institutions
and systems for a market economy.
"As an essential 'safety-net' for this sector, teacher salaries have been increased.
"However, much more needs to be done to upgrade the quality and depth of education.
Private sector initiative has risen to meet the vast demand for improvement in language
and computer skills... New investors, particularly in the garment and services sub-sectors
are also providing in-house training for their own employees."
The RCG asked aid donors earlier this week in Tokyo for $91m to finance education
intiatives for the next five years.