Two years out from the 2015 Millennium Development Goals’ target of universal access to education, Cambodia remains plagued by school infrastructure shortages, with a scarcity of classrooms and decrepit facilities that threaten students’ safety, NGOs and teachers say.
“School facilities, especially in the remote areas, are still poor, with a poor quality of windows, broken doors and no running water. As long as those facilities are not well cared for … the school cannot produce good sanitation,” San Chey, founder and director of the Khmer Institute for National Development, said.
At Slorkram Primary School in Battambang, teachers and students fear the roof may cave in at any moment.
“When it’s rainy or windy, they quit class or take the children out. The roof could fall on their heads,” said Sophea Lim, executive director of the Puthi Komar Organization, a child wellness NGO based in Battambang. “There are at least four or five schools in that district in similar conditions.… If I had a kid in that area, I would not want to send them to school.”
Battambang isn’t the only province facing poor school conditions. The Ministry of Education Youth and Sport’s 2012-2013 Education Statistics and Indicators survey reveals that a fifth of all Cambodian public schools lack “good walls”, almost half of schools lack running water and nearly a third don’t have a toilet.
In Ratanakkiri, the province with the least-developed school infrastructure, 73 per cent of schools do not have any water.
A 2012 NGO Education Partnership student survey found that only 17 per cent of more than 2,200 respondents said their school had electricity.
“Currently, the challenge I hear from school principals and schoolteachers is that they don’t have a sufficient budget to fix the school or do any facility repairs,” San Chey said. “The budget allocated to schools is very limited.”
The Ministry of Education denied repeated requests for an interview and refused to comment on what portion of the $78 million 2013-2014 school year budget has been allocated for school repairs.
However, the ministry’s survey shows that 1,377 new schools were built for the 2012-2013 school year, a development educators say is a mixed blessing that may come at the expense of school renovations.
“The government builds new schools in some places, but we still do not see in the remote areas enough school construction or repairs of the old schools,” said Rong Chhun, president of Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association.
With more than three million students seeking public education and just over 11,000 schools, even with the new construction there still aren’t enough classrooms. With more classes than classroom space, teachers are forced to work double or even triple shifts.
“We found that three-quarters of schools operate a double shift,” Leng Theavy, NEP’s campaign and advocacy coordinator, said.
Some school advocates claim that the lack of adequate school facilities and overcrowded classrooms contribute to the country’s high dropout rates: almost 60 per cent of students fail to complete lower secondary school (grades 7-9).
“When students go to school and they see it is not cleaner than their house and does not have good sanitation, they may feel it is better to stay at home,” San Chey said.
A teacher at Hun Sen Daun Ton high school in Preah Vihear province’s Chheb district said his school uses a bush as a same-sex toilet, which might contribute to female students staying home out of modesty or mbarrassment.
“We do not have toilets, electricity or running water. I pity the female students that use the bush as their toilet, they are so shy around the male students,” Ouch Nath said.
Advocates say action needs to be taken so that the scarcity of schools, classrooms and sanitation facilities does not continue debilitating students’ access to basic education.
“We cannot close our eyes,” said Sophea Lim. “We want students to feel excited about school and not feel like they are being sent to a dirty and unsafe jail. School conditions affect student motivation.”