The 36 6-year-olds in Kong Kunthea’s first grade class at Aknakvat Practice Primary School on Tuesday learned to write the number 1 and the first letter of the Khmer alphabet.
They were eager students, squirming in their low wooden benches, excitedly raising their slates to show the teacher their accomplishments—or the occasional upside-down letter.
But the children learned something more than the rudiments of writing as they began the new school year.
They also got a real-life lesson in math: Each was sent to school with a few hundred riel to pay their teachers.
While some parents and students call the payments a bribe, educators consider the fees a necessary tuition fee or donation to help teachers make ends meet.
“Teachers cannot depend on their job alone, because of the low salary from the government.” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development. “From the beginning of school, children learn this…. This is just one small part of the whole corruption [of the institutions in Cambodia].”
The Khmer language paper Chakraval reported Sunday that students were being forced to pay their teachers up to 400 riel a day in exchange for good grades.
While some middle school students interviewed Monday believed corruption is a problem, a group of 10-year-old boys at Aknakvat downplayed any correlation between the fees paid and the grades they received.
The boys confirmed Tuesday that they paid their teachers 200 or 300 riel each day and that if
They missed a day the teacher kept a record of the debt. But they said the fees didn’t win them higher grades.
So Lavy, the mother of three primary school children, said she had to pay for each of her children every day. She said her children didn’t want to go to school if they did not have money for the fee, because they feared the teacher would punish them.
“For me it is OK now, but for the other poor, what do they think?” she asked.
Teachers at Aknakvat acknowledged that they collected fees from students, but said they exempted very poor students and those who live in wats. The teachers complained that they had not been paid their 70,000 riel monthly salary (about $18) in three months and that they barely had enough money for the moto taxi fare to work.
The teachers said students passed or failed their classes according to academic standards, regardless of the fees. They said the fees augmented their salaries and covered the cost of supplies.
“I think the Ministry of Education should think about considering this issue as official, to end the rumors about teachers taking bribes,” said Kong Kunthea, the teacher who introduced the first graders to the alphabet.
Chea Bun Haur, director of Aknakvat school, also confirmed that the school collected 300 riel from students each day.
He too emphasized that children from very poor families and wats were not required to pay and that the fees did not affect grades.
“Some parents have asked me to help their children pass their grades, but I told them it was impossible because the children had a lack of [comprehension] of the topic,” Chea Bun Haur said.
The school director said that the practice of collecting fees was widespread in the capital, but was not an official government regulation. But he said he hoped to propose that the secretary of state for Education officially adopt the practice, to dispel rumors about bribes.
Secretary of State for Education Kea Sahorn said Tuesday that the ministry would investigate and punish all instances of bribery and extortion, on a case-by-case basis.
But he said the ministry has taken no action against fees paid to help teachers because it does not have the budget to pay the teachers and fears a crackdown could lead to protests.
Kea Sahorn said sanctioning the practice is problematic as well.
“The Constitution says that children can learn for free until grade nine, so we could not make this proposal become official,” he said.
Instead, he said, the Ministry has suggested the schools collect as small a fee as possible and to forgive students who are unable to pay.