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Passing the test: Is Cambodia’s education system failing its people?

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A high rate of grade repetition, school dropout and low student achievement plague the Cambodian education system. Hong Menea

Passing the test: Is Cambodia’s education system failing its people?

The Kingdom’s education system needs to grow its people but some flaws might stifle​ this growth

Coming from the Khmer Rouge occupation, with the loss of many scholars and academicians and a collapsed government, the education system had to be reconstructed from scratch – one that will chart the course of the Kingdom.

Nearly 30 years after the first election, Cambodia continues to grapple with the system which has seen a high number of school dropouts, grade repetitions and low student achievement.

The outcome is symptomatic of weak direction and policies stemming from flip-flopping goals dictated by donors, alleged Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (Cita) president Ouk Chhayavy.

“It is compounded by poverty and lack of morale among students who cannot afford the corruption and favouritism [practiced by teachers] in school. We need reform,” she said.

Countless reports and studies on the education system over the years show how the segment is steeped in structural problems, not just involving student performances but also school systems and apathetic teaching behaviour.

It is definitely a dilemma which the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport also noticed in 2018, saying that Cambodia is facing a learning crisis which requires `immediate yet visionary and systemic solutions’.

This, despite its success in raising student enrolment based on the fact that nearly every child can attend primary school, the ministry said in a 2018 report entitled Education in Cambodia: Findings from Cambodia’s experience in PISA-D (Programme for International Student Assessment for development), jointly produced with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“Cambodian education has been characterised as the education utterly in need of reforms to revive from the high rate of grade repetition, school dropout and low student achievement,” the ministry said.

For Chhayavy, the problem itself is due to the government’s constantly changing direction since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s.

“In the beginning, it wanted to achieve quality in education but donors wanted 100 per cent passing rate, so tutoring commenced privately.

“Later, the government changed its goal to ensuring quality but many couldn’t keep up, so they failed resulting in grade repetitions. Then, the government returned to pushing for 100 per cent passing rate. As of now, nothing is clear. It is based on what the donor wants depending on the [financing] package, not on our vision,” she said.

It does not help that Cambodia only allocates around two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to the Education Ministry compared to its military budget, although expenditure has grown an average of 16.7 per cent between 2016 and 2019, said the Parliamentary Institution of Cambodia.

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The 2020 Budget said education expenditure in nominal terms grew three-fold to $848 million in 2019 from $343 million in 2014.

Nearly 80 per cent of the total expenditure was attributed to an increase in government personnel wages, said the World Bank in May 2020.

Between 2020 and 2022, the public investment programme for education amounted to $1.7 billion – 60 per cent of that for basic education.

For technical and vocational training, $579.5 million was set aside for that period.

Failure to identify skills

The comparatively small allocation is not likely to do justice in ensuring equal rights to education as per the Cambodian Constitution or in transitioning to a high-skilled labour, a vision enshrined in its Industrial Development Policy 2015-2025 (IDP).

As it stands, Cambodia is falling behind Thailand and Vietnam, which more often than not fails to earn a mention among countries that are moving up the value chain in the sub-region.

For instance, Thailand is part of the global supply chain for integrated circuit boards and hard disk drives for big electronic brands such as Seagate, Panasonic, Sony, Toshiba, and LG. The country is also a known automotive hub for Japanese brands Toyota and Honda.

Both the sectors’ combined export value hit $60 billion in 2019.

Vietnam, on the other hand, is turning itself into an electronics manufacturing services (EMS) provider for Chinese companies, apart from housing global sportswear brands, like Nike and Adidas.

Even Malaysia is positioning itself as a destination for shared services and outsourcing to transform itself into a high-income and knowledge-based economy.

US-based MGI Research LLC said in 2014 that ASEAN is ready for opportunities where disruptive technologies could raise profit margins and lower costs, potentially generating $25 billion to $45 billion in annual economic impact by 2030.

But with the high rate of student drop-out still prevalent, the Cambodian industry is stuck in a labour-intensive and low productivity industry mode, the IDP wrote.

“To build a sound technical base, workers should have completed at least grade nine for them to possess the basic foundation to learn technical skills, which is a prerequisite for moving to learning technology.

“In terms of productivity, a very low level of education in the workforce will lead to loss in productivity in the long term as workers are not able to acquire new skills and have no choice but to accept low paying jobs,” it said.

In 2018, there were 13,113 schools in the country, providing education to some three million students or 18.75 per cent of the population.

The sector employed 120,155 staff, of which 99.5 per cent or 119,804 were teachers, the World Bank data showed.

Cita’s Chhayavy blamed the low level of skills in the industry on the education system that failed to identify students’ potential through vocational skills from a lower level so that they know their actual ability and are able to prepare for the future.

“The government should encourage every child and equip them with tools. It should also ensure that teachers are non-partisan and not guided by political party interests,” she said.

Children should be trained based on their interest from a young age in school, similar to how it is done in other countries. “This should start in kindergarten, so they can be steered in the right direction,” she said.

One in three repeated a grade

The ministry report said Cambodia has a sizable number of 15-year-olds who are not able to attain at least grade seven.

The percentage of the Cambodian population that has attained at least grade seven by age 15 in 2017 was only 28 per cent, meaning that the remaining 72 per cent of 15-year-olds in 2017 were either in grades below seven or out of school.

Students in Cambodia performed below the ASEAN average scores in reading, mathematics and science, which taken together are basic requirements for skills training.

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In addition, Cambodia has almost half of 15-year-old students in school who are one or more years behind track, particularly among boys.

“Grade repetition seems to be main cause of this schooling problem. This is clearly evident in the fact that about one in three students reported having repeated a grade at least once in primary, lower secondary or upper secondary school.

“In Cambodia, it appears to be a grave concern compared to those in PISA-D and ASEAN countries, particularly to its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam.

“The high grade repetition is not only costly but also harmful to student learning when remedial education is lacking,” it warned two years ago.

Lately though, the ministry has intervened to stop students from dropping out by offering scholarships, school meals and having an alert system while installing computer laboratories in lower secondary schools, ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha told The Post.

Similarly, it has been providing support for slow learners in primary school, supplementary classes for lower performing students, and testing student at the beginning year for grade promotion to reduce grade repetitions.

Paying for revision notes

Poverty levels, according to the Asian Development Bank, has dropped to around 12.9 per cent this year, but the World Bank said many are vulnerable to falling back into poverty when exposed to economic and other external shocks.

The type of financial situation places a huge stress on households which cannot afford to pay for notes or questionnaires, and sometimes textbooks in school which teachers demand based on the understanding that their salary is small.

A 22-year-old from Pursat province, who offered only her last name Pry, said she used to pay 2,000 riel for revision notes.

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“Our Maths teacher never taught us using the blackboard. Instead, he would charge us 2,000 riel or 2,500 riel for the notes. Other teachers also did the same once in a while,” said the office clerk, who comes from a farming family.

Most times, she would skip paying for the notes because she did not have money to give teachers, she said, adding that it is common for students to pay teachers for school materials.

Pry’s comments were supported by two other persons who were interviewed. They added that some teachers do not even turn up in class.

“Or sometimes the teacher would be present but won’t teach us, so we end up doing our own work. Due to this, some of us don’t bother going to school because it is far and teachers don’t teach us much,” said office worker Ly, 26, recollecting her schooling days in Sihanoukville.

The ministerial report, as well as scores of other studies done in the past on the education system, and World Bank’s May 2020 special focus Teacher accountability and student learning outcomes extensively document the weaknesses in the system but none of the bribery allegations.

When asked, ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha said teachers’ salaries have significantly grown to around 1.2 million riel to 2.1 million riel this year from between 800,000 riel and 1.4 million riel in 2016, suggesting that this might address the bribery allegations.

“We continue to raise the quality of teachers by focusing on two aspects – raising teacher’s salary and upgrading teacher’s professional qualifications,” he said.

He also pointed out that provincial offices for education in 25 provinces and the capital city are there to respond to professional irregularities among education staff members via administrative procedures in place.

Education plan for equitable system

But these seem like easy fixes to symptoms and not the problem per se.

For example, the World Bank said despite higher salaries, student learning outcomes showed no substantial improvement.

The same with the introduction of two school systems over the last five years – new generation school and school-based management caused largely by ineffective school accountability to the community.

“The government should empower roles of the school management committee to hold the management and teachers accountable for students’ results, including learning outcomes,” it stated.

In the end, despite the apparent challenges, the government will likely remain focussed on its seven-prong Education Strategic Plan 2019-2023 that aims to develop a quality, equitable and inclusive education system.

The measures include raising salaries and bonuses based on teachers’ performance, building more primary schools, strengthening school inspections, updating its technical education master plan for upper secondary schools, enhancing educational responses to the labour market, and preparing a comprehensive curriculum framework.

Would it make a difference? Only time will tell.

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