The Ministry of Education has set the mandatory age for school enrolment at 6, yet many Cambodian parents are starting to send their children to school at a much earlier age.
Soun Dara, a 30-year-old working mother, said she enrolled her eldest daughter into pre-school when she was just three years old.
“I wanted her to learn the alphabet, words and language faster, and to get her used to going to school,” she explains. “Also, we don’t have anyone to look after her at home as both my husband and I work.”
Dara said the first month was the hardest.
“I missed her and pitied her a lot,” she recalls.
“I wanted the class to finish quickly so I could pick her up early. Sometimes when I peeked in I’d see her and cry.”
Dara and her husband initially felt they were putting too much pressure on their young daughter, but within a month it was clear that she had adjusted to the new environment and was starting to learn.
In Cambodia, parents would traditionally relied on their parents to help look after their kids and educate them at home while they were away or working. The modern, urban lifestyle is changing this.
Chan Ngy, a vendor in Toul Kork, said he sent his child to a Chinese language school at age 3, in part because he was pressed to find child care support during the day.
“Parents these days are very busy with work and business,” he said. “We don’t have much time to take care of our children, and we believe that the school will be able to take care of them and provide better education than being with us or their grandparents at home.”
Mut Simon, a teacher in Chbar Ampov commune on the outskirts of the capital, said previously only the children of wealthy families attended school before the age of 6, but now it is increasingly common to see even poorer families enrolling their kids earlier.
“We used to think they were pressuring the kids, but today parents are paying more attention to their kids’ education and are sending them to private schools because those places accept children as young as two or three years old.”
Chy Meng, director of Cambridge School & Montessori, said a widely ignored Cambodian law states that children must be 6 years old to register for school. However, most parents in Phnom Penh are now sending their children to pre-school as young as 2.
The old law “is a waste of time and a barrier that stagnates the growth and creativity of children”, he said.
Meng said developed countries have recognised the importance of early childhood education and shifted the age of first enrolment to an earlier age in order to fully develop the potential of young children.
“Kids who start to learn a little bit at an early age become aware of their surroundings and as they grow physically and mentally and move to a higher education level their understanding of their surroundings will also be enlarged and deepened,” he said.
He said children who go to school at an earlier age “can discuss and communicate with older people much easier than kids who go to school at an older age”. They also seem to remember even their earliest lessons, and are better able to digest new course materials for the remainder of their formal education.