“Education for All”
by Elizabeth Herman
The seven o’clock bell clangs and feet, springing to life, scamper towards the voice booming from the loudspeaker. Its commands, singsong in cadence, bounce off white washed schoolroom walls. Students fall into lines stretching the length of the building, rows of dark blue bottoms and light blue – collared shirts. A passerby smiles: these kids found a way to go to school despite the poverty that surrounds them.
But as quickly as students scurry from the classroom, that thought evaporates. The truth is that most kids their age at work now, either with parents at home, at a job they have likely had for years, or in the rice paddies. Secondary school is an accomplishment only 31 percent of Cambodian children achieve as opposed to 90 percent who go to primary school. Only 5 percent will reach the third level, and fewer still will graduate.
Some might say Cambodian children are lucky to have any schools at all 30 years after the Khmer Rouge. Among their first actions on seizing power was to close all schools and start a systematic execution of teachers. Only 5,000 out of 20,000 teachers survived.
After the Khmer Rouge’s rule, attempts to rebuild education moved slowly. More civil strife left the country with sub-par schools and low enrollment rates. Literacy rates were 85 percent for children and 75.6 percent for adults respectively compared to 98.0 percent and 93.4 percent elsewhere in Southeast Asia. For adult woman, the rate is 66.7 percent compared to 90.6 percent for the region.
Cambodian education once brought pride. After independence in 1953, King Sihanouk developed infrastructure with astounding vigor. He built hundreds of schools in an attempt to create a national identity.
One man who has followed the fall and attempted rise is To Kim Sean, director of Education of Youth and Sport in Siem Reap. Growing up in a peasant family, Mr. To said he would “go to school half of the time and work half of the time.” He was educated in Sihanouk’s schools and then taught later from 1971 to 1975 after receiving his BA. When the Khmer Rouge took power, he was one of the few teachers who survived. His experience gave him perspective on the broken education system.
Mr. To recognizes the system should be overhauled. “The government should train the children to get both a general education and technical training,” he said. “From my experience, technical training is extremely important. During the Khmer Rouge, though it was a hard time, I was able to survive knowing the technical farming skills that I know. If we can train children in both ways, then perhaps they can achieve more success.”
This method might seem pointless in Siem Reap with its bustling streets and crowded markets, but it could be extremely useful in agrarian villages. These villages are plagued by high drop out rates after primary schools. Many have no secondary schools, and villagers can’t afford the time or money to head for town.
But even if the schools were in children’s backyards, many still could not go. They’re needed to help their families. Driving through Phnom Kong, it’s not rare to see a 4-year-old child washing clothes by a pump or tending to the family’s cooking fire. As early as nine, the children are encouraged to work as recyclers, beggars, booksellers, and more. When they hit their mid-teens, they’re often expected to have at least a part-time job.
To increase enrollment, some countries have adopted programs known as conditional cash transfers (CCTs) in which parents are given money, and sometimes food, in exchange for keeping their children in school. In places such as Mexico, communities have seen startling results. CCTs have been especially successful to help increase numbers of students continue on to secondary school, which is when many Khmer children drop out.
In the absence of such programs, many Cambodians see education not as an investment that leads to increased income but rather as a risk – and one that including losing an additional salary. When families earn a dollar a day, that matters.
Anna Svey, now 16, was forced to leave school after eighth grade to work and care for her family. Though she recycled cans from age 9 and hawked books on the streets since she was 12, she found a balance all too familiar to young Cambodians – school from 7 to 11, then work after lunch. Anna was the first in her class and reading is still her favorite pastime. But her mother’s seventh child, with the death of her father, was too great a strain.
Now she spends mornings cleaning and cooking. At night, she asked tourists in perfect English to buy her cheaply photocopied books. She sells maybe one, maybe two, but more often none. Her mother depends on this income, so she perseveres.
Older Cambodian children often forgo school to support their siblings. Ms. Am, mother of four and recently a widow, was forced to let her two older sons drop out to support the family and keep the two younger children in school. “I decided to send all of them to go to school and see which one is the better one and who can advance their education, so later on I can expect that they would work in a company and make some money,” Am said.
For children who only work, few hopes lie ahead. When asked what she would like to do, Anna said, “Whatever my mother wants me to do. I will do whatever she says.” Most likely, that means working for the family, contributing her salary to feed for six brothers and sisters.
Even those children who stay in school face difficulties: large classes, generic teaching methods, badly trained and unmotivated teachers, and a lack of resources. Teachers, underpaid, often take an additional job and become restless when they their students cannot focus.
Still, important steps have been taken over the past decade to train teachers. The Ministry of Education has opened new facilities, and foreign voluntary agencies help. VVOB, an education for development program run by the Flemish Association for Development Cooperation and Technical Assistance, works with the Provincial Teacher Training College in Siem Reap to train teachers. Free of cost and working around a five-tiered learner-centered methodology, it is running from 2004 until 2009.
Tola Keng, a 23 year-old student there, managed to continue his education through high school, unlike to two of his eight brothers and sisters, who had to leave school due to economic hardship.
Now, he feels he’s found his calling. “This school is so different from studying in the secondary school in the countryside. In secondary school, you learn many different subjects. But here, you are trained to become a leader; I’m being trained to become a teacher. I want to become a leader for my people, to help them be good people.”
On Nguon, the assistant project director, said, “We want to work on capacity building here and fund and support teacher training in order to guide teachers to learn the learning-centered methodology.” He sees this as a vast improvement from the repetitive and rote recitation of the traditional teacher-centered ways.
Although Mr. On is hopeful, he says there is a long way to go; “If you compare Cambodia to other countries in the region, like Malaysia and Thailand, we are still at a lower level than them, especially in the lower schools.” Just as the killing fields stand as a constant reminder of the Khmer Rouge, so does the brokenness of the education system that persists today.
Most disheartening is the fact is that many feel the golden age of education in Cambodia is a past success rather than a future goal. King Sihanouk’s overhaul of the education system created an incredible infrastructure of schools, but that surge in enlightenment thinking all but vanished with the country’s decades of civil strife that followed.
However, there is hope. The Ministry of Education has passed three policies that are working to improve enrollment rates and quality of lessons. NGOs like VVOB are working with the government to learn how to better teach Khmer youth. And, when prodded a bit more, Anna admits that one day she would like to save up enough money to move to Australia or England and open a store of her own. Perhaps, a bookstore.